How did a minority of senators kill an important bill?


The Washington Post and the New York Times can’t or won’t explain: In this morning’s New York Times, the editors thundered about the gun vote.

As they did, they created a bit of a puzzle. Since the senate has 100 members in all, how the heck did 45 senators manage to kill the bill?
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/18/13): For 45 senators, the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a forgotten tragedy. The toll of 270 Americans who are shot every day is not a problem requiring action. The easy access to guns on the Internet, and the inevitability of the next massacre, is not worth preventing.

Those senators, 41 Republicans and four Democrats, killed a bill on Wednesday to expand background checks for gun buyers...
In a column on the facing page, Gabrielle Giffords spelled out the puzzle a bit more cleanly. “On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation,” she wrote.

Here’s the problem. Neither Giffords nor the editors explained how this could have happened. However fearful they may have been, how could “a minority of senators” kill an important bill?

The editors didn’t bother explaining; neither did Giffords. And we were struck by their omission, because we had already perused this morning’s Washington Post, where this question seemed to go completely unanswered.

All through the Post, reporters and analysts referred to “the 60-vote threshold required for approval.” But no one ever tried to explain where that threshold came from!

On the Post’s front page, O’Keefe and Rucker wrote a 1700-word news report. This is the way they dealt with this puzzle:
O’KEEFE/RUCKER (4/18/13): The NRA galvanized its members to pepper senators with letters, e-mails, phone calls and appearances at town hall meetings, which convinced enough of them that voting for the measures would jeopardize their reelection prospects.

A series of votes Wednesday afternoon revealed insufficient Republican support for all of the proposals Obama sought. First, just four Republicans joined the majority of Democrats in a 54 to 46 vote for the Manchin-Toomey background-check proposal, leaving supporters short of the 60-vote threshold required for approval. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) voted no to preserve special privileges to call another vote on the amendment at any time.
It’s true! Fifty-four votes does fall short of a “60-vote threshold.” But where the heck did that threshold come from?

The gentlemen didn’t bother to say. Neither did Dan Balz in his analysis piece, although he did offer this:
BALZ (4/18/13): The proposal to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and on the Internet was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), two gun rights supporters. It had the support of more than a majority of senators—54 ayes to 46 nays—and it had the firm backing of the White House.

More significant, perhaps, in a polarized country is that the idea of expanded background checks received overwhelming support across the political spectrum. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly all of them said they “strongly” favored the plan.

In the ways of Washington, that still wasn’t enough.
There they went again! If the bill “had the support of more than a majority of senators,” why wasn’t that enough? In the final sentence of his piece, Balz finally offered a non-explanation explanation:
BALZ: But members of Congress are mindful of who votes and who doesn’t on hot-button issues, and they have seen the NRA’s power in past elections. That and the 60-vote threshold were enough to frustrate the desires of the majority for action.
Balz agrees with O'Keefe and Rucker! There was a 60-vote threshold!

The Post’s news report didn’t try to explain where that threshold came from. Neither did its analysis piece. Meanwhile, in a fiery opinion column, Dana Milbank thundered about who did and didn’t show courage. But this was the best he managed to do at explaining the unexplained puzzle:
MILBANK (4/18/13): Courage was in short supply at the Capitol on Wednesday. The overwhelming majority of Americans favor the sort of background checks that Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had proposed to keep weapons from the felonious and the insane. A majority of senators supported it, too. But too many cowered in the face of fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association.

And so, four months after the massacre of first-graders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., families of victims and gun-violence survivors were watching from the Senate gallery as the centerpiece of gun-control efforts went down to defeat. “Shame on you!” two women in the gallery called out after proponents of the background checks came up short of the required 60 votes.
But why were sixty votes “required?” Milbank didn’t say.

Do you know why 54 wasn’t enough? As of last night, we thought we did.

But then, we read this morning’s Post. After that, we read the New York Times, including its featured news report on the front page. After reading that report, we realized that we were no longer sure.

Why wasn’t 54 votes enough? As Jonathan Weisman began, he quickly explained, or seemed to explain, the need for the sixty votes. We found his words confusing
WEISMAN (4/18/13): A wrenching national search for solutions to the violence that left 20 children dead in Newtown, Conn., all but ended Wednesday after the Senate defeated several measures to expand gun control.

In rapid succession, a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun buyers, a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines all failed to get the 60 votes needed under an agreement between both parties. Senators also turned back Republican proposals to expand permission to carry concealed weapons and to focus law enforcement efforts on prosecuting gun crimes.
Say what? Sixty votes were “needed under an agreement between both parties?” Hungrily, we continued to read, although that construction seemed odd.

Late in the game, Weisman finally explained. Or did he? We still aren’t sure:
WEISMAN: The action on Wednesday was initially supposed to be only the first series of votes in a debate to take days if not weeks. But as the measures' chances faded this week, Senate leaders decided to rush the process, reaching a bipartisan agreement to hold nine votes in succession, each with a 60-vote threshold for passage.

Using the 60-vote hurdle so early in the process allowed Democrats to prevent the passage of an amendment mandating that any state with a concealed-weapons law, no matter how rigorous, would have to recognize the concealed-weapons permit of residents from any other state. The amendment received 57 votes in favor, including those of 12 Democrats, and 43 votes against.
Do you have any idea what that means? Frankly, we do not, though Weisman makes it sound like this was not a typical filibuster. He makes it sound like Democrats agreed to a special threshold in part to defeat that amendment they didn't favor.

Here’s our question: Did the practice known as a “filibuster” create the need for the sixty votes? That’s what we would have thought last night.

By this morning, we no longer knew. And our big press organs were working hard to keep us all in the dark.

How did a minority of senators manage to kill an important bill? We searched and we searched and we read and we read. No one at these major newspapers seemed willing or able to tell us.

Accept no substitutes: As you will see, Weisman does use the term “filibuster.” But he only uses it to refer to what might occur next week if the bill proceeds.


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  4. The reader has some responsibility to educate themselves on the basic background of stories they have enough interest in to read.

  5. Not only did the cited editorial and op-eds fail to explain why the bill was defeated despite the support of a majority of Senaors. They also failed to explain why the Senate bill would have prevented the carnage at Newtown.

    The latter omission is easily explained. In fact, the Senate bill would not have prevented the Newtown tragedy. The guns had been legally purchased by the suspected gunman's mother, Nancy Lanza.

    Using the horror of Newtown to justify a bill that wouldn't have prevented this horror is a deceptive argument.

  6. In reply to David's observation about Newtown: a ban on large-capacity magazines WOULD have prevented some of the Newtown deaths. 11 children managed to escape from a classroom when the gunman was forced to switch magazines. Even more could have escaped if he had been forced to 'reload' more frequently. Same with Tucson. Only the need to reload allowed the crowd to subdue the gunman who shot Gabby Giffords. Unfortunately, NRA lobbying ensured that a ban on large-capacity magazines would NEVER see the light of day in any legislation.

    1. You might be right, Anon. However, the Senate bill that was just defeated didn't ban large-capacity magazines. As far as I can tell, it only expanded background checks. Nevertheless, proponents from the President on down cited Newtown as justification.

      BTW although restricting magazine capacity might help unarmed bystanders to subdue a gunman, it would be even more helpful to allow bystanders to be armed. IMHO it's foolish to designate a "gun-free" zone, thus preventing honest people from using arms defensively against crazed killers.

    2. Incidentally, Anon, thre's a real downside to limiting magazine capacity. Guns are frequently used defensively. Some estimates say as often as 2.5 million times a year. Mostly, the gun is just brandished, but this recent case is a more extreme example.

      The necessity to reload is big disadvantage for defensive use. If I were protecting my 2-year old child from three armed intruders, I would not be satisfied with a gun that could only fire seven shots before reloading.

    3. " would be even more helpful to allow bystanders to be armed."

      And a THANK YOU VERY MUCH to you, David in Cal, in proving my point from last December. I said if there is any legislation to come out of Newtown it will be allowing 6-tear-olds to be armed.


    4. "If I were protecting my 2-year old child from three armed intruders..."

      Wow. All this time, i thought you were white. Who knew?

    5. DAinCA says "The necessity to reload is big disadvantage for defensive use....I would not be satisfied with a gun that could only fire seven shots before reloading. "

      This is just world-destruction fantasies, in which heroic gun nuts cooly and calmly pick off the bad guys. In fact, during mortal crises, the body prepares for eventual fight-or-flight by narrowing vision to the straight-ahead and sending blood to the larger muscle groups impairing hand-eye coordination. Soldiers and police need constant training to be able to overcome these reflexes. The theoretical ability to become Rambo contrasts tragically with actual events.

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  8. I'm under the impression that they went with the 60 vote bar for each amendment in order to prevent the possibility of Republican amendments being added to the bill.

    They chose an all or nothing approach.

    1. Yes, that's what the WSJ says at

      Majority Leader Harry Reid was free to bring the deal struck by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to the floor for an up-or-down vote....

      But under Senate rules, a simple majority vote would have opened the measure to up to 30 hours of debate, which would have meant inspecting the details. The White House demanded, and Mr. Reid agreed, that Congress should try to pass the amendment without such a debate.

      Majority rules would have also opened the bill to pro-gun amendments that were likely to pass. That would have boxed Mr. Reid into the embarrassing spectacle of having to later scotch a final bill because it also contained provisions that the White House loathes. So Mr. Reid moved under "unanimous consent" to allow nine amendments, each with a 60-vote threshold.

      The White House was right to worry. An amendment from John Cornyn of Texas that would have required all states to recognize every other state's concealed-carry permits earned 57 votes, 13 Democrats among them....On Thursday, Wyoming's John Barrasso offered an amendment to protect gun ownership privacy that passed 67-30.

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