The Corner

How the Failed Gun-Control Filibuster Actually Succeeded

“We could feel the wind blowing in our favor,” an aide to Senator Mike Lee says about the days preceding yesterday’s vote on the Toomey-Manchin background-check compromise, in an interview with NRO.

President Obama may have blamed the gun lobby for his defeat, but he could just as easily have singled out Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, the Senate’s most vocal and spirited opponents of the legislation. Those three lawmakers led an effort to filibuster the bill over opposition not only from the administration and Senate Democrats, but also from within their own party. They are now relishing what they consider an important strategic victory.

As the White House accused the three senators of ignoring the views of the American people, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board dubbed the filibuster “the GOP’s gun-control misfire” and blasted them for shifting the burden off of Senate Democrats by making Republicans “the media’s gun-control focus.”

That, according to Senate insiders supportive of the filibuster effort, was precisely the point. The Lee aide says that the trio hope to bring even more focus to the issue, and to do so from a constitutional perspective, much as Rand Paul raised awareness about drone policy by mounting his now-legendary 13-hour filibuster in March, or as Republicans did in 2003 when they made George W. Bush’s judicial nominee Miguel Estrada practically a household name, filing seven votes for cloture on his nomination.

“Last week’s filibuster was critical,” says a Cruz spokesman, “because it made clear that there was strong opposition to the legislation, that there was going to be a strong stand over this, it raised the issue in the public’s awareness.” Though the filibuster itself was defeated, it seems the senators behind it are counting this a victory.

During the national debate sparked by the Newtown massacre, perhaps no statistic has been cited more often than the one intended to bolster support for the Toomey-Manchin background-check compromise that was defeated yesterday: According to polls, over 90 percent of Americans favor expanding such checks. President Obama mentioned it repeatedly in the remarks he delivered while campaigning for the Democrats’ legislation, and White House press secretary Jay Carney deployed it in virtually every press conference in the weeks preceding yesterday’s vote.

Why did that factoid fail to persuade? “Senators don’t vote on poll questions, they vote on specific legislation, and are expected to understand it and be able to explain how it will impact their constituents before they vote on it,” the Lee aide explains. Toomey-Manchin would have created “new carve-outs, but today’s carve-outs are tomorrow’s loopholes,” he says. He also points to what may be a more fundamental issue, a belief to which Senator Lee held firmly throughout this debate: that the argument over guns wasn’t “just about gun owners and gun culture but about American culture, where people value empowering individuals over empowering the government.”

The success of Senate Republicans in the latest battle also signals a shift. John Boehner’s decision to stop negotiating with President Obama behind closed doors and to conduct all House business out in the open through committee hearings puts an increased onus on the Senate to act, and puts a premium on intelligent, effective opposition from Senate conservatives. “It’s interesting that, even with Harry Reid in charge, the Senate is the place where conservatives still protect the rights of citizens,” the Lee aide remarks.

The Senate affords the minority party tremendous power, and the “three amigos of the Constitution” will continue to use what Cruz’s spokesman calls “unusual procedural activities” in order to exert it.

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