WASHINGTON -- The Senate cleared a major procedural hurdle on Thursday as it voted to overcome a Republican filibuster effort and begin debate on a gun control package.
Senators voted 68 to 31 take up the bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would expand background checks to more gun buyers, form a national commission on mass violence, create a federal gun trafficking statute and enhance school safety measures.
If the senators who voted against the procedural motion had prevailed, the Senate wouldn't have been able to debate the package, let alone amend it and vote on it.
There were some notable party splits. Two Democrats, Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Begich (Alaska), joined the Republican filibuster effort. Sixteen Republicans sided with Democrats to vote to begin debate on the bill: Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Dean Heller (Nev.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John McCain (Ariz.), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).
The vote comes during a particularly intense week in the debate over how to stem gun violence. Families of Newtown, Conn., shooting victims have been on Capitol Hill meeting with senators to urge them to support the bill. During Thursday's vote, they sat in the balcony watching lawmakers cast their votes.
The outcome was clearly a win for gun control advocates, but the bill still faces major challenges. For starters, its opponents are expected to use the full 30 hours allotted before debate can actually begin on the bill, which means senators can't begin offering amendments until next week. Once the amendment process does begin, Republicans are expected to put forward several measures designed to weaken the bill, includingan amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would gut it and replace with a watered-down alternative. Beyond that, 60 votes will again be needed in order to end debate on the bill and move to final passage -- a key vote that the National Rifle Association announced it will score.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said to expect about 10 amendments to the bill. The aide noted in an email that some Republicans are even threatening to object to take up the amendments all at once, which means "it could take 3-4 days to set up EACH amendment vote."
Still, the fact that the bill has now cleared the first procedural motion means it will receive a debate. Up until minutes before the vote, Republicans were urging their colleagues to vote against letting that happen.
"As of this very moment, not a single senator has been provided the legislative language" of the background checks piece of the bill, said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), referring to a bipartisan deal cut on Wednesdayon that provision. "That is the centerpiece of this measure. It is critical that we all know what's in the bill before we vote on it ... That's why I ask my colleagues to vote against cloture."
The gun bill "remains controversial" and "has little chance, if any, of going anywhere," argued Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "I'm not going to vote to proceed to a bill that has not yet been written, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. We need to make sure that what we do is address the cause of this violence and to not come up with symbolic gestures."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chided lawmakers for trying to block even a debate on the gun bill.
"We are the 100 senators elected to represent more than 314 million Americans. We are accountable to them, not to special interests lobbies on the left or the right. They should not dictate what we do," he said. "I urge all senators to be less concerned with special interest score cards and more focused on fulfilling our oath to faithfully discharge the duties of our offices as United States senators."
The GOP’s Three Fiscal Lies
Nowhere is the gap between the needs of the majority and the preferences of the 1 percent greater than in public discussion of Social Security. The rules of the national debate rig the discussion in advance, to the detriment of most Americans and to the benefit of the rich and the financial industry.
The first rule of the rigged retirement security debate is that we, the people, and our elected representatives are allowed only to debate purely public retirement benefits, like Social Security and, for the poor, Supplemental Security Income. According to the rules of the game, we are not allowed to mention or criticize the oceans of money in tax-sheltered private savings accounts that disproportionately benefit the rich — nothing to see here, folks, move along!
The rigged rules of the Social Security debate, furthermore, do not allow any participant to suggest expanding rather than cutting public retirement benefits — why, that’s crazy talk! Only cutting Social Security or, at most, maintaining promised benefits will even be considered as policy options. At the same time, players in the Elite Entitlement Debate game are allowed, indeed, encouraged to propose further expansions in our already-enormous tax-favored private retirement savings programs like 401Ks and IRAs. Calling for combining cuts in Social Security with more tax giveaways for savings, mostly to the rich, proves that politicians are Very Serious People to their Wall Street donors and to the mainstream media pundits who lionize the conservative deficit hawks Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.
This rigged elite game explains the perverse political situation we find ourselves in. The conservatives and libertarians demand that Social Security be completely abolished. Progressives reply, “Please don’t abolish Social Security completely — would you please consider letting us help you cut it instead?” Playing the role of the wimpy progressive begging for mercy from the hard right, President Barack Obama reportedly may call for cutting Social Security for 80- and 90-year-olds by means of “chained CPI” in his forthcoming budget.
FixtheDebt, one of the “astroturf” (faux-grass roots) anti-entitlement front groups created by right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson and funded by corporations, many of them in the finance industry, is spending tens of millions of dollars in a short time to pressure the public and lawmakers into cutting Social Security and Medicare. Medicare has genuine long-term cost problems (best addressed by means of all-payer price regulation), but why the pressure from Peterson and many of his fellow plutocrats to cut Social Security? If you want to know the answer, follow the money.
As Felix Salmon noted of the FixtheDebt manifesto by the front group’s allied CEOs, “the letter basically just says ‘please cut our taxes, raise taxes on everybody else, and cut the benefits they get from Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which are programs we individually don’t rely upon’. It’s gross self-interest masquerading as public statesmanship.” But the money trail doesn’t stop there.
Cutting Social Security is backdoor privatization — and a bonanza for Wall Street money managers. Cuts in promised Social Security benefits, whether from chained CPI, a higher retirement age, or means-testing, will force middle-class and working-class Americans to try to save even more money in the tax-favored private savings accounts like 401Ks so beloved by the Wall Street financiers who fund both Democrats and Republicans. Working Americans will be invited to do so, by means of tax incentives, or forced to do so, by means of compulsory savings mandates (a possibility opened up by Obamacare’s individual mandate forcing Americans to purchase private health insurance from for-profit companies). The result: enormous torrents of money from middle-class and working-class Americans would be steered into for-profit mutual funds, for-profit annuities, and other for-profit private retirement savings vehicles, from which the financial middlemen can skim off even more fees and bonuses. In the for-profit money management industry, the mere prospect of cuts in Social Security triggers the sweet sound of cash registers: Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.
Dozens if not hundreds of lobbyists, think tank experts and academics are being paid by Pete Peterson and other financial industry magnates at this very moment in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to promote the party line. Fortunately, not all prominent pundits and journalists are willing to parrot the propaganda talking points — “generational warfare,” “shared sacrifice” — that are cranked out on a daily basis by the well-funded anti-Social Security lobby. In recent weeks, we’ve seen several examples of prominent opinion journalists boldly questioning the anti-Social Security campaign.
On the left, Duncan Black, who blogs as “Atrios,” laments: “sadly the leftmost position generally in Congress is to demand no cuts to the program. There isn’t yet a movement to expand them.” He points out the fallacy of the conventional wisdom that holds that the answer to retirement security consists of even more tax subsidies and incentives for private savings:
On March 8, in a Bloomberg article titled “Don’t Cut Social Security, Expand It,” Josh Barro, who is generally viewed as a center-right thinker, also criticized elite orthodoxy:
In the neoliberal center, as it were, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias has dared to question sacrosanct Petersonite dogma:
Coming from different parts of the political spectrum, these writers look at the same facts and come to the same conclusions: Social Security should not be cut. It should be expanded.
The Senate rejected a bipartisan compromise amendment to expand gun background checks on Wednesday, casting a 54 to 46 vote that drew sharp responses from supporters who had seen the measure as a small, significant and viable step forward on gun control.
Below, a list of the Twitter handles of all of the senators who voted no on the measure, excluding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who voted against the amendment on procedural grounds. Find their information and let them know how you feel. For a full roll call, click here.