Can Democrats defuse a filibuster on gun legislation?

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When Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., first circulated a letter at the end of March promising to filibuster proposed legislation that would expand background checks for gun buyers and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, the message was clear: Passing new gun laws would not happen without a messy procedural fight. Amassing 51 votes would be hard enough, but Paul's letter crystallized what many had already assumed: The Senate would need 60 votes to proceed with gun control.

Since then, opposition to the proposed gun legislation has only intensified. The letter, originally signed by Paul along with Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, now bears 13 signatures and will be re-circulated on Monday, according to Politico.

In it, the 13 senators promise to "oppose any legislation that would infringe on the American people's constitutional right to bear arms, or their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to bring his gun legislation to the floor as early as next week. The bill includes expanded background checks and cracks down on gun trafficking but will not include a ban on military-style semiautomatic assault weapons. That proposal, too heavy a lift to pass the Senate, was dropped to ease the passage of other gun laws.

But it's not at all clear that Reid will be able to circumvent or defeat the Republicans' promised filibuster. Under a recent change in Senate rules, Reid could avert a filibuster on the motion to begin debate on the gun bill by promising each party two amendments to the legislation. His aides have discussed that route, according to Politico, but the majority leader has not yet indicated whether he would use it.

Even if Reid manages to defuse a filibuster to begin debate on the bill, closing the debate is another matter entirely; Paul and his colleagues would be free to filibuster the legislation during the floor debate, ensuring that 60 votes would eventually be required to push the bill through the upper chamber.

There Reid's task becomes significantly trickier. He could conceivably break a filibuster by peeling away enough Republicans to surmount the 60 vote threshold, but volunteers from across the aisle have been scarce: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he wouldn't support a filibuster if senators are allowed to freely amend the legislation on the floor, but few GOP lawmakers have followed Graham's example.

Republicans and other gun-rights supporters have objected to the proposed expansion of background checks, worrying it would be the first step in the development of a nationwide gun registry that could eventually be used to confiscate firearms.

Gun-control advocates have pushed back. "Nobody is talking about creating an entirely new system," President Obama said in Colorado on Wednesday. "We are simply talking about plugging holes, sealing a porous system that isn't working as well as it should. If you want to buy a gun, whether it's from a licensed dealer or a private seller, you should at least have to pass a background check to show you're not a criminal."

"That's just common sense," the president said.

Paul's newest letter, in addition to Lee and Cruz, also bears the signatures of Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Dan Coats, R-Ind., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

  • Jake Miller

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