By Chad Pergram, FOX News
Sarah Brady stood quietly outside the Senate chamber in the Ohio Clock Corridor last week. Few senators recognized her. Even fewer reporters had a clue who Sarah Brady was.
The scribes swarmed the families from Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO and Virginia Tech, recent members of the carnage club into which Brady was forced some 32 years ago. The families had assembled to view the series of failed gun votes on the Senate floor. Some wore green T-shirts emblazoned with the name of “Victoria Soto,” a teacher gunned down at Newtown. The words “Live, Laugh, Love” were ensconced inside the outline of a pink flamingo on the shirt.
Sarah Brady had seen this movie before.
“We had to fight hard just to get the bill out of committee,” said Brady.
“The bill” Brady spoke of was the so-called “Brady Bill.” It was the 1994 piece of legislation which President Clinton signed into law, creating the first set of federal background checks known as NICS, short for the “National Instant Criminal Background Checks System.”
For 13 years, Sarah Brady spoke at countless press conferences and appeared on numerous television and radio programs. She trod the marble corridors of Congress, cajoling and pressing lawmakers on firearms.
And down those long hallways of Congressional office buildings like Dirksen, Rayburn and Russell, Sarah Brady pushed the wheelchair of her husband: White House Press Secretary James Brady, gravely wounded in the March, 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Sarah Brady headed Handgun Control, Inc., which later evolved into the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And 13 years after John Hinckley Jr. shot her husband in the head, she helped persuade lawmakers to pass the “Brady Bill.”
Sarah Brady’s advice to the families who watched the various gun amendments melt down on the Senate floor last week? Wait. Be patient. Mark time.
“It was a long process,” Brady said of passing the seminal background check bill in 1994. “I don’t want people to be too disappointed now. This will help the fervor to break the NRA’s hold.”
Just moments before, a few feet away from where Brady spoke, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) held forth a lectern before a phalanx of reporters.
“The American people are awake. Alert. Paying attention,” said Reid. “They’re not going to stand forever for what just took place.”
Sarah Brady had not only seen this movie before with the Brady Bill, but also with a major crime bill in 1994. That package included the original (now defunct) assault weapons ban. Democrats tried to hustle the legislation to the House floor in August, 1994. Nearly every piece of legislation that hits the House floor requires a “rule.” The “rule” paves the way for the House to consider the legislation. But if lawmakers can’t agree to a rule, they can’t debate the bill.
That’s what happened in 1994. The “rule” blew up and Congress adjourned for the summer recess, sans crime bill.
There is a rehearsed script Democratic presidents fighting for firearms measures read from at times like these. It could perhaps be called “Guns and Rose Garden.”
Last week, President Obama took to the Rose Garden at the White House, assailing lawmakers who voted no on various gun proposals.
But in 1994, President Clinton christened the “Guns and Rose Garden” approach.
“They have failed the American people,” fumed President Clinton after the rule failed, steaming at many of his fellow Democrats.
Like Sarah Brady, someone else had seen this act before as well.
In fact, he sat at the Senate dais, presiding over the vote on the amendment offered by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). He then read the tally to the body once it failed.
When things collapsed in 1994, Vice President Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and authored the crime bill. At that time, Biden was nearly apoplectic, roaming the Senate chamber, shouting about the failure of his colleagues to give the legislation clearance for debate. Biden knew that one provision in the legislation threatened its very survival.
“Guns, guns, guns,” hollered Biden, his pitched voice rattling the brass spittoons sitting near the front of the Senate chamber. “For six years, we had no crime bill because of guns!”
But then Congress went away for a few weeks. There was a swell of support during the August recess. And the Congressional leadership summoned lawmakers back to Washington at the end of the month to pass the crime bill and approve the assault weapons ban.
Last week, Biden looked beaten, his countenance captured in a widely-circulated photo.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) came over from the House to the Senate to observe the vote – and perhaps to subtlety remind senators of his own plight.
Langevin is paralyzed and navigates Capitol Hill in a high-tech wheelchair. An aspiring police officer, Langevin became a quadriplegic after an accident at the Warwick, RI, Police Department where he was a cadet. Officers erred in pulling the trigger on a weapon they thought was empty, burying a bullet in the Congressman’s spinal cord. Three weeks ago, Langevin upbraided the NRA over its school safety program, suggesting a marked increase of armed guards in schools. Langevin noted he was hurt in a purportedly safe environment filled with police officers who supposedly knew how to handle firearms.
Langevin spoke to Biden just after the Manchin/Toomey vote.
“He (Biden) is still hopeful. We will get this done. Even in this Congress,” said Langevin. “He knows this place. Knows how to resuscitate this.”
Sarah Brady was resolute.
“Those key marginal senators who were needed to pass…we will have to go after now. Not in an ugly way,” said Brady. “Newtown was a turning point. The pressure’s going to stay on them (senators). We’ll keep it up.”
After all, that’s what happened with the Brady bill and the 1994 crime bill. When it comes to an issue as nettlesome as guns, successes often spring out of failure.
Albeit after a time…
“American voters are the ultimate judge of today’s result,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of only three Republican senators who voted in favor of Manchin/Toomey.
And then came a message from former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who made reference to being shot in the head at “point-blank” range in 2011.
“It’s clear to me that if members of the U.S. Senate refuse to change the laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change the members of the U.S. Senate.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) suggested as much shortly after the vote when speaking of the Newtown families who “don’t want to get out of bed let alone come down here and argue truth to power.”
Schumer added that “things change quickly here in Washington. They’ve changed for gay marriage. They’re changing for immigration and they will change for gun safety sooner than you think.”
From the Rose Garden, President Obama spoke of how Newtown was supposed to set things in motion in ways that Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and even the wounding of Giffords and killing aide Gabe Zimmerman couldn’t.
“I said something must be different right now. We’re going to have to change. That’s what the whole country said,” Mr. Obama fumed.
But the president also spoke of how people said change was coming after the other episodes, too.
“I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different to prevent these things from happening are not empty words,” he scolded.
In some respects, it’s a wonder a gun bill even made it to the Senate floor at all. In fact, the idea that there were the first major votes on gun legislation in the Senate in 19 years speaks to precisely the patience and even confidence exuded by Sarah Brady as she roamed the hall outside the Senate chamber last week. That’s because a coalition of Republican senators threatened to filibuster, barring the gun measure from even hitting the Senate floor. Hurdling such a filibuster is hard work, requiring 60 senators to vote to break the filibuster.
In the end, the Senate secured 68 yeas to halt the filibuster, even if some who voted yes weren’t necessarily in favor of gun control. They at least thought it was worthy that the Senate consider gun legislation.
Then there were questions about what the Senate might be capable of passing.
The arrangement to vote on guns is also part of a bargain entered into by Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
It was a gambit executed by both sides, designed in part to force major votes on gun legislation – but also to essentially make it a challenge for either side to pass what they wanted.
For starters, adopting most garden-variety amendments requires but a simple majority of 51. The same with final passage on most bills. But Republican senators threatened to block debate on any amendments. That meant senators would have to unearth 60 votes just to debate any amendment and then another round of 60 to conclude debate on that amendment. That created a real conundrum for Reid. In addition, Reid knew that there was probably a majority of support from senators to adopt a GOP alternative, crafted by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Dan Coats (R-IN) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). In the end, that plan garnered 52 votes.
By the same token, McConnell faced a different problem. Conservative groups and Kentucky Democrats eye McConnell as he faces a possible primary challenge and perhaps a competitive campaign next year – though no one can really say from exactly whom. McConnell realized there was probably a sufficient majority to adopt the Manchin/Toomey compromise on background checks.
So what to do?
Give everyone a vote on everything – but impose a 60 vote threshold to pass anything.
In other words, those wanting to filibuster amendments would get their way – by raising the bar from 51 to 60. This would make it extraordinarily hard for the Senate to adopt any amendment.
But through this agreement, both Republicans and Democrats laid a trap for the other side.
For instance, Republicans were more than happy to see a vote on imposing an assault weapons ban. Authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the assault weapons prohibition failed 60-40. But the GOP had a vote to point to in the campaigns of vulnerable Democratic senators. They could now run ads suggesting those lawmakers ran afoul of the 2nd Amendment and “want to take away guns.”
This is especially poignant with a host of Democrats from purple-ish to red states facing tough re-election bids next year.
Democrats were also willing to conduct votes on Manchin/Toomey and other issues. Then, Democrats could “turn” those votes against Republicans in 2014 if they voted no.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence highlighted this tactic in a press release:
“With today’s recorded votes, we will be able to inform Americans exactly which legislators are prioritizing the grade they are getting from the NRA over the safety of their constituents,” the coalition wrote.
Moreover, by suffering a legislative defeat, gun control advocates can actually use those votes as an effort to gin up support. They hope they can actually pass some gun control provisions in the future.
Milling about near the Senate chamber, Sarah Brady reminded the families from Virginia Tech and Aurora and Newtown to be patient. This was just the start of the race. After all, she waited 13 years between the time her husband was wounded before Congress approved the “Brady Bill.”
No one knows if Brady’s right or not.
But Sarah Brady is confident she’s seen this movie before.