The politically treacherous debate over the nation’s gun laws has thrown President Obama’s second-term negotiating style into sharp relief.
In earlier legislative skirmishes, Obama was pragmatic above all, making a first offer and then a second and a third as he sought compromise with a bitterly divided Congress.
But in his legislative push to curb the nation’s gun violence, Obama’s willingness to make concessions has been absent, at least so far. The president set a clear marker — to enact the toughest gun restrictions in generations — and has since worked to rally the public to his side while waiting for wavering lawmakers to come along.
Obama is all but ignoring the Republican-controlled House as he waits for a bipartisan majority to emerge in the Senate, hoping to use it as leverage to force a vote from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“It’s clear that the dynamic of the second term will be to go to the Senate, try to build a bipartisan majority there for action, and then take it to the House and put John Boehner in the position where he’s the only person in town saying no,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former House leadership aide.
Although Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday will focus heavily on the economy and fiscal matters, the president is also expected to pressure Congress anew to act quickly on gun control.
Democratic lawmakers are bringing shooting victims from their home states to sit in the gallery. The White House said victims of gun violence will sit with first lady Michelle Obama.
The president’s confident approach on guns is particularly striking given the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the issue.
The divide is more pronounced in the Senate than in the House, where many Democrats have reliably liberal constituencies. A significant number of Senate Democrats, by contrast, represent states with deep hunting traditions or are worried about votes that might antagonize the National Rifle Association.
Yet the president called again last week for a vote on an assault weapons ban, the most polarizing of his proposals. Obama is pursuing a similar strategy for other issues dominating his second-term agenda, from comprehensive immigration reform to staving off the deep spending cuts known as the sequester.
Obama may still return to a more accommodating approach; he often says that he won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But his recent strategy reminds some longtime congressional observers of former President Ronald Reagan, who also drew firm lines — while still allowing for compromise in the end.
“What Reagan was able to do so successfully was to lay out a firm, tough and pure position and hold to it while things shook down and the other side moved, and waiting for them to come much closer to where he wanted them to be,” said Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “I see Obama’s public statements on guns now being much more of that than anything else.”
The legislative process should begin by the end of February, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to stitch together several proposals, including requiring background checks for all gun buyers, making gun trafficking a federal crime for the first time and limiting the size of ammunition magazines.
Expansion of background checks is the most popular proposal and enjoys overwhelming support in public polls. Four key lawmakers — Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — are drafting the legislative framework for a deal.
To accommodate gun rights proponents, the legislation could include limited exceptions for guns transferred between family members or rented for sporting purposes, according to senior aides.
For decades, liberal lawmakers — many of whom represent cities plagued by gun violence — have pushed for additional gun restrictions. They’ve wanted to reinstate an assault weapons ban ever since one version expired in 2004.
At a news conference last week, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) of Baltimore spoke about the shooting death of a 20-year-old nephew and said he sympathized with victims’ families.
“It is a painful thing to see your blood splattered on the walls of an apartment, to see tissue from your loved one splattered on walls,” Cummings said. “I understand why they are desperate for action.”
Over the years, however, action has been stymied by more moderate Democrats. Party leaders have steered away from discussions of guns — a strategy designed to win over moderate swing voters. But top Democrats think the Newtown school shooting, in which 20 children and six adults died, altered the political landscape.