The success of President Obama’s starkly liberal second-term agenda will rest largely on the shoulders of Senate Majority leader Harry M. Reid, who has been a rock-solid political ally and a valued legislative tactician for Obama during his first term.
But for the first time since Obama became president four years ago, his political interests and Reid’s may be diverging. Not so much because there is huge disagreement on the president’s agenda, but because helping Obama may hurt vulnerable Democrats in the Senate.
Reelected and unconcerned about ever having to face voters again, Obama seems determined to push a far-reaching agenda — on guns, climate change and gay rights, among other topics — that looks toward his presidential legacy. Reid (D-Nev.), significantly more encumbered, must worry about how to protect 20 Democratic-held Senate seats that will be up for grabs in 2014, while Republicans are defending only 14 spots.
For some Democrats up for reelection next year, supporting the president will be politically treacherous terrain, and no issue may capture that disconnect better than gun control.
Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) face reelection battles in states where gun control is politically unpopular, making their potential votes on the Obama proposals problematic.
Even if those Democrats vote against some or all of the proposals, they are likely to find themselves tied to the president’s effort to rein in gun rights — just as dozens of House Democrats voted against Obama’s health-care legislation but were still attacked over the issue in their campaigns in 2010.
This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled his belief that gun rights is still a winner. “Our Second Amendment rights are under attack, and I am ready to do whatever it takes to stand up for our freedom,” he wrote in a fundraising pitch, a day after his campaign manager sent a similar missive to potential donors with an ominous warning: “The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out assault on the Second Amendment.”
But the president — keenly aware of how national polls show a tilt toward stronger gun-control laws following the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — has made new gun restrictions a priority.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on new gun proposals this month, and on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) plans to formally introduce legislation that would ban assault weapons and limit ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
Aides say there probably will be three main packages of gun-control legislation over the coming months, with one anchored by the assault-weapons ban, which is considered the most difficult. Another set of proposals will include an effort to establish universal background checks for all firearm sales in retail stores, gun shows or private exchanges. The other piece would include limiting the size of gun magazine clips.
Senate Democrats have yet to decide the order: whether to start with background checks — their most likely victory — and try to build momentum, or to save that for the final piece so the effort ends on a positive note.
Reid has remained silent on the individual gun-control proposals. His prepared statement last Wednesday, after Obama announced the proposed legislation, left gun-control advocates and gun rights supporters parsing each sentence: Some focused on Reid’s hailing of the president’s “thoughtful recommendations,” while others noted his vague promise that “the Senate will consider legislation.”
Some of Reid’s fellow Democrats are worried. Feinstein said she had a private conversation with Reid to voice her displeasure after he told a Nevada television station that, given the current political environment, it might be futile to move an assault-weapons ban through Congress. “You have to try, you can’t sit back and just let the gun organizations call public policy,” Feinstein said in an interview last week.
On Tuesday, Reid sounded more open to a bold approach. “This is an issue that we’re not going to run from,” he told reporters. “It’s an issue we need to talk about. . . . It may not be everything everyone wants. But I hope it has some stuff in there that’s really important.”
Reid’s relationship with NRA
Current and former advisers say Reid’s uneasy relationship with the National Rifle Association could make him open to more stringent gun laws than in prior years, as he balances the chance to pass historic legislation with the need to protect some of his more vulnerable incumbents from tough votes on gun control.
In March 2010, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA and the president’s gun-control nemesis, made a politically helpful appearance for Reid at the opening of a new shooting range in southern Nevada.