WASHINGTON — Two days after the slaying of 20 first-graders at a Connecticut schoolhouse shocked the nation, President Barack Obama climbed a White House stage with an emotional appeal: It was time to fix the nation’s gun laws.
Four months later, that agenda is in tatters.
A stripped-down version of the president’s proposals failed in the Senate Wednesday, delivering a blow to Obama’s second-term agenda and gun-control allies who sought to transform the horror over the Newtown shootings into their first chance in two decades to pass new restrictions.
“There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this,” Obama said appearing in the Rose Garden with Newtown family members after the vote. “It came down to politics.”
“All in all, this is a shameful day for Washington,” the president said.
With Wednesday’s vote, the president’s earlier moral calling on an issue of national importance has yielded to a symbol of his diminished clout in a divided Capitol. The measure’s collapse marks a combined failure of White House advocacy and control of the president’s party on Capitol Hill, and the sway of re-election campaigns for senators facing potential opposition from the gun lobby.
The measure, focused on expanding background checks of gun buyers, was a skeleton of the plan the White House put forward in January, which called for bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines such as the Bushmaster rifle and 30- round clips unloaded on 20 children and six school employees in the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.
Still, even on a narrow issue supported by more than 90 percent of Americans surveyed, Obama and his Democratic allies couldn’t overcome the worries of reluctant Democrats from politically conservative states — most facing re-election next year — and overwhelming Republican opposition.
“I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who co- sponsored the background check amendment. “I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time.”
For the president, the defeat was personal. Again and again, he delivered impassioned pleas for tighter restrictions, framing his concern as that of an anguished parent eager to protect the nation’s children. He shed tears during that initial White House appearance after the Dec. 14 shootings. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, teared up as she advocated for gun-control legislation in her hometown of Chicago.
And the White House embraced the cause of the Newtown families, asking a mother of one child killed to deliver the president’s weekly radio address last week.
Wednesday, Obama called senators from both parties, making a last-minute plea to build support for the bill.
It wasn’t enough: five Democrats and 41 Republicans voted against the measure. The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, cast a no vote, enabling him to procedurally ask for reconsideration as someone on the prevailing side. While prospects of that appeared negligent, Obama said Wednesday: “I see this as just round one.”
In the final hours before the vote on expanded background checks, a series of lawmakers whom sponsors hoped would support the bill announced their opposition.
“This conversation should be about what is in people’s minds, not about what is in their hands,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “However, in its current form I do not see a path for my support.”
Democrats were quick to blame the power of the gun lobby for the failure. Of four Senate Democrats who voted against the bill on its merits, three face re-election in 2014, including senators from states that voted for Republican Mitt Romney for president last year. The three up for re-election next year are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana. Heitkamp also voted no.
Four Republicans supported the measure, including amendment co-sponsor Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Chris Cox, a National Rifle Association spokesman, said in a statement that the background checks “will not reduce violent crime.” He said the NRA would continue to work with both parties on measures to prosecute “violent criminals.”
Strategic missteps by Obama and his allies also contributed to the bill’s defeat.
At a January forum in Washington, Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, warned Democrats that any gun legislation must be “zeroed in, lasered on” in order to succeed.
Instead, the president and Democratic allies pursued a series of ambitious gun initiatives, including a ban on assault- styled weapons and high-capacity magazines that robbed advocates of valuable air time to make their case to the public for more popular measures like expanded background checks.
It also played in favor of the NRA, allowing the country’s biggest gun lobby to stir opposition to an assault weapons ban.
Historically, presidents have their best chance of passing major legislation if they move quickly after a crisis.
After Newtown, Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to spend a month crafting a package of gun measures, which included 23 executive actions he took immediately on Jan. 16. The legislation, however, faced a longer road. While Obama was caught up in tax-and-budget negotiations, he dispatched a select group of senators to craft a gun bill.
“History is about pushing legislation in the openings,” said Rice University’s Douglas Brinkley, a historian who’s part of a group that occasionally meets with Obama at the White House. “The window for President Obama to do gun control may have passed when it got tied up with the sequestration.”
White House officials maintain that a more active public presence by Obama during that period would have hampered the legislative process by making it tougher for Republicans to sign on to any gun-safety bill.
As those Democratic lawmakers worked to win Republican support, their colleagues were quietly being subjected to an intense lobbying campaign by gun supporters.
Those who spoke out in favor of the bill faced repercussions from the gun lobby. Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican and self-described lifelong NRA member, was one of the few members of his party to publicly back new laws, teaming up with Democrats on an anti-trafficking measure.
Though Rigell made clear he opposed most of Obama’s agenda, he became the target of a television ad campaign by the National Association for Gun Rights containing what the president yesterday called “untruths about this legislation,” including that the bill would create a federal gun registry. Rigell had to pay for an ad rebutting the attack.
“Good men and women are checking out,” Rigell said in an interview in his office last month.
There have been indications for weeks that the renewed gun safety campaign might end in defeat.
In late February when Neil Heslin, the father of a child slain at Newtown, testified before a Senate committee, most lawmakers didn’t attend.
A month earlier, the one time that the NRA testified on Capitol Hill after Newtown, President Wayne LaPierre wasn’t subjected to rigorous questioning by Democrats. Instead, they directed their most pointed queries at gun experts.
At one point, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of an assault-weapons ban, told LaPierre that he had aged well since they last clashed in 2004 over an earlier ban that had since lapsed.
“We tangled — when was it, 18 years ago?” she said. “You look pretty good, actually.”
Democrats and gun advocates say their fight will continue, though it probably will move from the legislative front to political circles. Already, both sides are vowing to make guns an issue in the 2014 mid-term congressional elections.
“This is going to hurt the senators,” said Bill Badger, who was shot in the head in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that wounded a lawmaker. “The next election we’re going to take care of those senators.”
The former lawmaker, Democrat Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, came to Washington to lobby for the legislation and stood by Obama’s side Wednesday night in the Rose Garden. Along with her husband, Giffords has started a political action committee that has vowed to oppose the lawmakers in next year’s election who rejected the background checks.
Erica Lafferty, whose mother was the principal shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, received an embrace after the vote from Feinstein.
“We’re just really being told not to give up,” she said.