Schumer says McCain’s ‘courageous’ support puts a gun bill ‘closer than ever’

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Kelly and Schumer, with the families of gun violence victims. (Reid Pillifant)
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At a press conference in Midtown this afternoon, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Sen. John McCain's support for a "vigorous" debate on a new gun bill should allow the measure to move to the Senate floor.

"I think that will be enough to give us our 60 votes, and have an up-or-down vote on background checks," said Schumer, was joined by police commissioner Ray Kelly and family members of gun violence victims.

Schumer and McCain appeared together on "Face the Nation" this morning, where McCain announced that he didn't support—much less understand—his Republican colleagues who want to filibuster the bill.

McCain said the shared goal of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill would be helped by a "vigorous debate and discussion."

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"The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote," he said. (McCain jokingly invoked the Senate's reputation as the "world's greatest deliberative body," calling it the "greatest exaggeration in history, by the way.")

McCain's pledge should allow the gun bill to proceed to the floor—a prospect that was looking increasingly uncertain this week, after a dozen Republicans expressed support for Rand Paul's proposed filibuster.

"Until today I was worried about that," Schumer said at the press conference. "I'm a little less worried now, because of Sen McCain's straightforward—as usual—forthright, and—as usual—courageous answer."

Schumer is still trying to rally the 60 votes for his proposal to make background checks universal, which he had initially hoped would be a "sweet spot" that could attract bipartisan support after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

But the politics have shifted rather conspicuously since then.

In the weeks after Newtown, Schumer spoke publicly about a possible deal that would include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who expressed some vague support for expanded background checks at the time, but is now among the leaders of the proposed filibuster.

I asked Schumer what had changed since then, and if his side, including the Obama administration, had acted quickly enough to capitalize on public sentiment.

"What changed I guess is just the power of the N.R.A. and the groups with them, and they managed to spread things that are just not true, such as this is going to lead to regisration," said Schumer, who noted that his Brady Bill had been the law for 17 years and never led to registration.

"They are just vehement, the anti-gun control lobby, the anti-gun safety lobby," he added. "They managed to persuade people not to be for the bill.
"As for not doing it soon enough, I can tell you, even though there's a public outcry, it takes a while to line up the votes. Most members of the House and Senate were already committed on certain issues, and to craft legislation that would get us to the 60 votes in the Senate and put enough pressure on the House to take it up, takes a little while.

"And that's what we're trying to do. If we were to put the bills on the floor the week after, in my judgment, they would have lost. Now we have a fighting chance."

Schumer said he's open to amendments that might attract more support for his background check bill, up to a point.

"If they make the bill ineffective and a fig leaf, forget it, we're not going to pass something for the sake of saying we passed something, if it's not going to save lives," he said.

Schumer also reiterated the need to keep records of background checks, which the N.R.A. has said would lead to a federal gun registry, and which led to the collapse of Schumer's talks with Sen. Tom Coburn last month.

"The idea of having no recordkeeping doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "That would be like saying we should have no recordkeeping of when you paid your taxes. Well then how do we enforce it? How do we know if you paid your taxes if there's no record?...You need to have some kind of enforcement. You can't just say we're urging people to do this."

Schumer said he's still working with senators Tom Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, to drum up support for background checks, and conceded that he'll have to overcome some Democratic defections.

"I don't expect every Democrat to support it but I expect the overwhelming majority," Schumer said. "It will be with an overwhelming majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans if we get the 60 votes."

That bipartisan support, Schumer said, would create a "groundswell" that would then help it to pass the Republican-controlled House.

But even if the bill fails, the getting it to the floor for a vote will be something of a victory for Schumer's side, since their long-term strategy hinges on forcing legislators to go on the record with a vote for or against specific measures like background checks and the assault weapons ban.

"We're closer than we've ever been to passing some good strong legislation that would prevent people who shouldn't have guns from getting them," said Schumer. "We're closer than we've ever been."