Reid going modular on gun control

Harry Reid finds himself stuck between his gun-rights voters and the NRA on one side of the current gun-control debate, and the White House and Dianne Feinstein on the other.  How can he proceed without angering either?  The Wall Street Journal reports that Reid will schedule a gun-control bill that focuses on background checks and magazine capacities for semiautomatic weapons — but will leave open the amendment process:

Senate Democratic leaders expect a gun bill to move to the Senate floor that includes most of the proposals backed by President Barack Obama, with the notable exception of a ban on military-style, semiautomatic weapons, a top aide to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said.

The bill would likely seek to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines; expand background checks to include sales at gun shows and other private transactions; and require better record keeping to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illnesses. It would also try to curb gun sales in states with more relaxed gun laws to buyers in states with stricter laws.

The proposed “assault weapons” ban has become “unrealistic,” according to an aide to Reid, and he will peel it out of the overall bill before bringing it to a floor vote.  However, that will leave Reid open to a charge of retreat, especially after the backpedal on filibuster reform last month.  That’s where the amendments come into play:

The goal is to get the bill to the Senate floor next month, at which point lawmakers could then seek to amend the legislation by adding a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons or other provisions, the aide said.

According to the terms of the rules reform, both the majority and minority get at least two amendments to each bill.  If Reid wants to allow more, he should be able to do so within the rules, but two will probably be all he needs.  Feinstein can then offer an amendment to add the assault-weapons ban back into the bill, which will go to a floor vote.

Why does this matter?  Basically, it gives Democrats in the Senate — especially red-state Democrats like Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, and others facing voters in 2014 — the opportunity to cast a high-profile vote against the ban without damaging the core bill.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at this point if the magazine capacity issue got broken out into a separate amendment, if that loses steam in the Senate, so that they can do the same with that issue.  The assault-weapons ban probably won’t get 40 votes in a separate floor vote.

This is quite a clever move by Reid.  Public polling shows that voters aren’t keen on the assault-weapons ban but want background checks expanded and intensified.  Reid is protecting the most vulnerable Democrats by letting them split their vote so that the red-state Democrats can claim that they blocked the gun banners in Washington, perhaps diluting a GOP attack line next year.