Manchin: I'll look at any common-sense legislation after Uvalde -- but not the filibuster

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

After yesterday’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, both chambers of Congress will try to push through gun-control legislation. But what can pass, and would any of it prevent another such shooting? Those are questions that Joe Manchin’s asking, even while calling for some action — while precluding others.

First, let’s see what will happen next on Capitol Hill. Chuck Schumer plans to drag up a couple of already moribund bills as a way to stage a vote on something:

Within hours of the shooting in Uvalde, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, moved to clear the way to force votes in coming days on legislation that would strengthen background checks for gun purchasers, pushing to revive measures with broad appeal that Republicans have blocked in the past.

The pair of bills would expand criminal background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows and lengthen the waiting period for gun buyers flagged by the instant background check system to allow more time for the F.B.I. to investigate. The measures, passed by the House in 2019 and again last year, have languished in the Senate amid Republican opposition. Even as they publicly mourned the massacre that killed 19 children and two adults on Tuesday, Republican senators gave little indication that their positions had changed.

But some Democrats said they saw hope for bipartisan consensus on proposals that polls show have overwhelming support among Americans. And in any case, many were clamoring to force Republicans to go on the record on the measures at a time when grief and anger about gun violence in America has erupted anew following Tuesday’s massacre and a recent mass shooting that killed 10 at a Buffalo supermarket.

In other words, this is a political stunt designed to exploit the passions of the moment. If Democrats truly “hope for bipartisan consensus,” they would open negotiations on these points to draft new text that could potentially get at least ten Republicans to cross the aisle. Instead, just like with their multiple-failure election-federalizing and Build Back Better bills, Democrats simply want another stunt vote for a few campaign ads, hoping that this issue will outweigh inflation and overall crime in the midterms.

It’s a game played by both parties, but make no mistake — it’s nothing more than a game. Joe Manchin wants a more deliberative process to see if any consensus can be reached, especially perhaps for the perpetually moribund background-check legislation he co-authored with retiring Republican Pat Toomey. Manchin wants some “common sense” gun control in this session if possible, but he won’t break the Senate to get it:

Pressed on whether he would consider scrapping the filibuster to tighten the nation’s gun laws, he warned that it would lead to chaos in the Senate.

“The filibuster is the only thing that prevents us from total insanity. Total insanity,” he said.

What does Manchin mean by “total insanity”? It means that he is concerned, and rightly so, that the elimination of the filibuster will produce wild swings in policy. First we’d ban limits on abortion, then we’d ban abortion, and then we’d ban the banning of bans all over again. On firearms especially, a Senate unbound by the need for bipartisan cooperation would likely pass a slew of bills that courts would be forced to throw out later, which would end up eroding both the legislative and judicial institutions even further.

Manchin isn’t alone in that concern, as The Hill notes:

The response is consistent coming from the West Virginia centrist, who along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has resisted pressure from fellow Democrats to get rid of the filibuster in order to pass various pieces of President Biden’s legislative agenda.

Sinema was a bit more coy about it. When pressed for a position on the filibuster to pass gun-control legislation, Sinema at first demurred:

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has also opposed getting rid of the filibuster, didn’t respond to questions from reporters when approached in the Capitol last night.

“We’ll get our statement over to you,” Sinema said.

Shortly afterward, her office tweeted out this non-answer:

If Sinema planned to budge on the filibuster for this issue, she would have almost certainly committed to it immediately.

So what will Manchin want to see in legislation that he can pitch across the aisle?

Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had championed legislation in 2013 to expand background checks prior to gun sales, a proposal that came in direct response to the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., several months earlier. The bill failed to win the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster. Following the mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 14, Manchin said he still supports his proposal with Toomey, but without 60 votes in the Senate, he questioned the practicality of bringing it to the floor for a vote. It would be better, he argued, to consider reform proposals that had the support to become law. He suggested a focus on mental health.

A bill that combined those approaches might find enough GOP votes in the Senate to survive. But then what? Would any of this have prevented what happened in Uvalde? Likely not, because as Tom Knighton wrote just before this shooting, gun-control responses to high-profile shootings are largely non-sequiturs. That also describes the bills that Schumer will push this week, which are instead longstanding gun control proposals that bear little relation to any actual crimes but are popular among progressives. That’s why Manchin wants more deliberation and perhaps a return to a real committee-driven process that looks at these incidents in detail to determine what really could have stopped them.

And maybe that would really require a much tougher approach to mental illness than legal firearms ownership. Manchin’s assessment of “total insanity” may be more on point than even he intended.