Inside the GOP’s Filibuster Plot

by Eliana Johnson

Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee — the Senate’s rabble-rousing GOP triumvirate – seek nothing less than to fundamentally transform the debate over gun control.

As has been reported, they will likely filibuster when Harry Reid brings his gun-control legislation up for a vote. In doing so, according to sources, they hope to effect a dramatic shift in public opinion, akin to one that followed Paul’s 13-hour filibuster earlier this month over President Obama’s drone policy.

Their approach is carefully orchestrated, and they are operating on the premise that taking a principled constitutional stand with a little dramatic flair will rally people to their cause. Properly executed, they hope the upcoming filibuster will refocus the gun-control debate, which has been mired in technical details, on the meaning of the Second Amendment. 

“We haven’t had a debate yet about the purpose of the Second Amendment, why it is such an important part of our Constitution, and the right to self-defense as a part of self-government,” a Lee aide tells National Review Online, “but that’s the discussion we want to be having. We want to elevate the level of discussion to that point.” As Harry Reid tries to round up 60 votes in support of his proposals, they think Democrats will struggle to defend the constitutional merits of their proposal.

Focusing the discussion on constitutional principle proved successful for Paul, who during his filibuster demanded that the administration declare whether the Constitution allows the government to drop a drone on a U.S. citizen on American soil. The result: a 50-point shift in public opinion toward his position. “Once it became clear what the principle was that was being stood for, the public naturally followed,” the Lee aide observes.

The upcoming battle has been strategically timed. While gun-control advocates have been out in full force since December’s massacre in Newtown, Conn., sustaining setbacks and defeats along the way, the GOP trio has been building momentum, each member taking center stage at different turns. 

If Paul set the precedent for a successful filibuster, Cruz drew headlines for his charged exchange with California senator Dianne Feinstein during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Democrats’ gun-control legislation. “I’m not a sixth grader,” she told him, after he questioned how the proposals square with the Second Amendment. 

Their effort continued apace last Saturday when, during the Senate’s debate on the budget resolution, Lee proposed an amendment that would have required a two-thirds majority for the passage of any gun legislation. “67 votes is what you need to amend the Constitution. If we’re going to mess around with the Second Amendment, this is an important threshold,” Lee’s aide tells me.

Though the amendment was defeated, six Democrats crossed the aisle to support it. That, according to Lee’s aide, “tells us about the state of the country.” “There is bipartisan support for protecting the Second Amendment,” he says. “There is not bipartisan support for abridging those rights.” He may be right. Roll Call, on the basis of the vote, predicted “trouble for President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda.”

The climax of their effort came earlier this week when Paul, Cruz, and Lee delivered a letter to Reid announcing their intention to filibuster. GOP senators Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) and James Inhofe (R, Okla.) announced earlier today that they plan to join the effort. The energy, it seems, is on their side. 

The upcoming filibuster is also an attempt to push back on the administration’s oft-repeated claim that a majority of the American people support the “common-sense measures” it has proposed. While public polling does indicate that a plurality favor stricter gun laws, support such laws has declined since December’s shooting.

If Cruz, Paul, and Lee have anything to say about it, those numbers will decline further as the debate moves to a higher plane. “We could start to see those poll numbers invert,” says Lee’s aide, and Reid will have a tough time corralling 60 votes to pass his legislation. Even now, he is optimistic. “We don’t think the votes are there, and so we’re going to call them on it.”

The Corner

The one and only.