The uphill battle for reviving the gun debate in Congress comes into sharp view after talking to Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who opposed the bill to expand background checks. After voting against the legislation on April 17, he has faced withering criticism at home in Arizona.
So have the protests and the pressure from gun control advocates prompted him to reconsider his view on the bipartisan plan put forward by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey?
“No. No!” Flake told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. “I’m comfortable where I am. I don’t feel the need to change for political reasons. Some articles are implying that, but not at all.”
It remains far from certain the gun debate will see a second act.
Supporters say they hope to take another vote before the August recess. But its future hinges on whether Flake and a handful of senators are able to make significant changes in the legislation intended to expand background checks for people buying guns on-line and at gun shows.
“I don’t know that they can change it enough,” Flake said. “I doubt that they could change it sufficiently because they would lose votes on the left.”
The frustration in Flake’s voice as he talked to reporters just off the Senate floor underscored the difficult road ahead for new gun control legislation. And even if the Senate would consider it again, House Republican leaders have shown little interest in bringing up the bill to expand background checks.
For his part, Flake supports existing background checks, but said he believes the Manchin-Toomey proposal “goes too far.” He said he would consider supporting a bill only if it allowed friends or family members to skip a federal background check when selling guns to one another on the Internet, through text messages or on Facebook.
“Part of the frustration is that Manchin-Toomey has become synonymous with background checks: You’re either for them or against them,” Flake said. “It’s a more complex issue than that, but anyone who tries to explain it or address the complexity is flip-flopping or a turnabout. That’s not the case.”
Outside Washington, both sides are waging an intense campaign against a small group of senators. But several key senators and their aides tell ABC News they are pessimistic about reviving the legislation – for now, at least – without rebranding the bill to take away the stigma that it is a soft-on-guns measure.
“We can’t bring back the bill as it is,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview Tuesday. “Clearly this bill is going to have to look differently in order to allow members to face their constituents and explain why they changed their minds.”
Murphy, a supporter who stood for hours on the Senate floor during the debate and recited the stories of victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his home state, said he believed the public pressure from his side could work. But he also said expanded mental health treatment would be needed for the bill to pass, even while addressing other concerns like the cost of background checks and provisions to help draw support from more rural senators.
“We’re going to get a second shot at a gun bill – after we finish immigration,” he said.
The campaign’s advertising and intensity is taking on the proportions of a political race. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is targeting Democrats who voted against the bill like Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is up for re-election next year.
Manchin said he wished the groups would spend time explaining the legislation and clearing up the misconceptions rather than pressuring specific senators to change their votes.
“Elections are a long ways away,” Manchin said Tuesday. “Right now, we should be trying to re-educate the constituents of those states.”
Senator Max Baucus of Montana, a Democrat who voted against the background check proposal, has since announced that he is not running for re-election next year. He told reporters Tuesday that he has no plans of automatically backing the gun legislation that is supported by President Obama and most Democrats in the Senate unless changes are made.
“I’m open to anything,” Baucus said. “But I’m representing the people of Montana.”
For the next two months, any legislation action on guns will be placed on hold as a major immigration discussion begins on Capitol Hill. It remains an open question whether the gun debate will return to the forefront again this year.