When the Senate voted to frustrate the efforts of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to strengthen the existing system of background checks for gun purchases by extending the oversight to gun shows and Internet transactions, a visibly angry President Barack Obama vowed that the matter was not closed. "I see this as just round one," he said after the April 17 vote. "I believe we're going to be able to get this one. Sooner or later we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people."
And over the weekend, Manchin stepped forward to pledge to reintroduce the bill he helped to author, telling Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace, “I’m willing to go anywhere in this country, I’m going to debate anybody on this issue, read the bill and you tell me what you don’t like.” Of course, more practically, Manchin won't simply be able to move the issue forward by debating just "anybody." He'll have to go after some "no" votes, and turn at least five of them around to "yes" votes.
Is there hope for that? It's an issue that MSNBC's Chris Hayes plans to take up on Monday night's edition of "All In With Chris Hayes." And there does appear reason to believe that the cause for enhancing the background checks system is not a lost one. As Lauren Fox of U.S. News and World Report reported today:
Public Policy Polling released the latest in a series of surveys it has conducted that show five senators who voted against a bill that would have required all gun sales over the Internet and at gun shows to be subject to background checks, are in hot water with voters.
The survey was conducted from April 25 to April 26. PPP surveyed more than 1,000 voters in Alaska, 600 in Arizona, 500 in Nevada and 600 in Ohio.
"The background checks vote is a rare one that really is causing these senators trouble back home," Dean Debnam, president of PPP, said in a release. "All five of these senators ... have seen their approval numbers decline in the wake of this vote. And the numbers make it clear that their position on Manchin/Toomey is a major factor causing the downward spiral."
Those five senators? Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Some of the poll slippages are more dramatic than others. The most harmed since the background checks vote is Flake, who former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, singled out for opprobrium. Flake has earned himself the distinction this week of being the least-popular senator -- with approvals around 32 percent. (There is a caveat, however -- Flake's membership in immigration reform's "Gang of Eight" is also a possible factor in those disapprovals.)
The other four senators have not seen their numbers erode as dramatically as Flake's, but to supporters of the background check proposal floated by Manchin and Toomey, it leaves open the possibility of mounting a re-appeal. Additionally, a WMUR Granite State Poll in New Hampshire has found that Sen. Kelly Ayotte's (R-N.H.) numbers have taken a similar dive since her no vote on Manchin-Toomey was cast.
All of which is an important lesson in how a lost vote doesn't necessarily translate to the final nail in the coffin of a legislative priority. Supporters of the background check bill look at these poll numbers and see possibilities. The Obama administration, which has a voter outreach machine, can continue to add public pressure as well.
Of course, none of this necessarily means you gain new leverage. In Ayotte's case, for example, the National Rifle Association is sending help. And there are really no new ways to twist the arm of say, Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who won't even be up for re-election until 2018.
While you can't always win the votes you want, there's still a way to lose well -- and that involves making it clear to everyone precisely where you stood on the day you lost. In this way, the Obama administration has staked out pretty specific terrain -- they want the background checks measure passed. They're making a bet that sooner or later, events are going to force the public to return to the issue and to respond with greater intensity than before.
This is a lesson that the GOP actually understands better than Democrats. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Congressional Republicans in both the House and Senate have combined for nearly 40 separate attempts at repealing it. Every single time they've taken a vote, they've done so knowing full well that it's a non-starter. It doesn't matter -- they're making a bet that at some point in the future, public sentiment will turn against the president's health care reform bill, and if that happens, no one will be left wondering where they stood.
In fact, the news on that score this week is that the freshmen in the House's GOP caucus are sort of aggrieved that they've not been afforded the opportunity to cast some futile votes against the Affordable Care Act themselves. As Talking Points Memo reported:
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) urged leadership to hold a repeal vote so freshman members can serve up the same anti-Obamacare talking points for their conservative constituents that more senior Republicans enjoy.
“If you’re a freshman — the guys who’ve been up here the last year, we can go home and say listen, we voted 36 different times to repeal or replace Obamacare. Tell me what the new guys are supposed to say,” he said. “We haven’t had a repeal or replace vote this year.”
“We have not had a chance as freshmen to do that,” said first-term Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.). “Even if it’s just symbolic — and even if we understand that process-wise we are not going to be able to say, okay we want repeal, it’s done, and it’s over. But this is the issue that so many people around the country who love the Republican Party are frustrated with.”
Does the GOP regret those 30-some-odd failed votes for repeal? Clearly not. Maybe there's something for legislators who support the background checks measure to learn from that.
[As mentioned before, Chris Hayes plans on discussing the future of the background checks bill on his show, "All In With Chris Hayes" Monday, 8 p.m., on MSNBC.]
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This story appears in Issue 47 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 3.