WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked a parade of campaign-season votes on gun rights Wednesday that could have been a political thorn for Democrats seeking to retain control of the chamber in this fall’s elections.
The Nevada Democrat used Senate procedures to prevent votes on any amendments to a bipartisan measure expanding hunters’ access to public lands and renewing land conservation programs. The dozens of thwarted proposals included Republican efforts to expand gun owners’ rights and Democratic attempts to toughen firearms restrictions.
In April 2013, the Senate rejected an effort to expand background checks for gun buyers and to impose other firearms curbs, four months after the fatal shootings of 20 children and six staffers at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. President Barack Obama and top Democrats promised the drive would be renewed, but they have lacked the additional votes and faced reluctance by some lawmakers to revisit the issue.
The wide-ranging bill the Senate debated Wednesday included provisions opening up more federal lands to sportsmen, letting hunters return 41 polar bear carcasses to the U.S. that they shot in Canada and heading off government curbs against lead bullets and fishing equipment. It would also renew a program letting the Bureau of Land Management sell some land and let federal agencies use the funds to buy other properties.
The legislation was seen as a political boon to Democratic senators from GOP-leaning states who co-sponsored the bill and face competitive re-election races this November. That included the chief Democratic sponsor, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, plus co-sponsors Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, John Walsh of Montana and Mark Udall of Colorado.
The bill was co-sponsored by 26 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one independent, a measure of bipartisan harmony rarely seen at a time of sharp divisions between the parties.
But Reid said he’d been unable to reach agreement with Republicans on “a reasonable list” of amendments, which he said has been an oft-repeated pattern.
“They want to kill the bill like they’ve tried to kill everything the last six years,” Reid said.
Republicans complained that Reid’s move was the latest in which he refused to let GOP senators offer amendments because he wanted to protect Democrats from difficult votes that might be used against them in their re-election campaigns.
“I’m fearful that once again, we’re at risk of basically being cast aside because of political concerns,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the bill’s leading Republican author.
Blocked amendments included one by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to let people carry guns into post offices and another by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to make transporting ammunition across state lines easier. Connecticut Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy wanted to prohibit gun purchases by people under temporary restraining orders while Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would have stiffened penalties for people buying guns for others who plan to use them in crimes. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., wanted to limit federal environmental rules governing some wetlands, while Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was trying to buttress the water supply for his state’s city of Prineville.
Republicans are expected to derail the overall legislation in a vote this later week or next.
A similar bill in 2012 was sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who also faced a tough fight to keep his seat. It died in November that year — weeks after he was re-elected.