WASHINGTON – The sharp divide on gun laws – and the charged politics around them – will be on display on the Senate floor Monday, when lawmakers vote on four gun bills, all expected to fail amid partisan acrimony.
Roughly a week after the Orlando massacre, the votes will instead provide political fodder as the two parties battle for control of the White House and Senate.
Republicans have accused Democrats of politicizing a tragedy and pushing bills that might unfairly limit restrict Second Amendment rights. Democrats say they are trying to address an epidemic of gun violence while Republicans offer weak bills that provide more political cover than solutions. The likely result: another showdown that ends with nothing winning approval.
The stakes are particularly high in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, where Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has trumpeted his support for expanding background checks on gun purchases as a sign of his bipartisan credentials, but Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has attacked him for failing to provide real action.
Toomey plans to vote against both Democratic proposals: one to expand background checks to cover virtually all gun sales, and one barring anyone on a federal terror-watch list from purchasing firearms. It was not clear Monday afternoon how he planned to vote on two Republican alternatives that impose fewer restrictions. Versions of all four measures failed in December, shortly after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and the politics of the issue do not appear to have changed – despite intense pressure brought by Democrats months ahead of elections.
Toomey, running in one of the country's toughest races, drew widespread praise from gun control advocates in 2013 for sponsoring, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), a bill to expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows and in other forums. He has highlighted that work in television ads backing his reelection bid. But a spokeswoman said the background check bill offered by Democrats Monday is "much broader" and that he will oppose it.
"Manchin-Toomey applies to commercial gun sales while including exemptions for transfers among (family) members, for example," spokeswoman, E.R. Anderson wrote in an e-mail. "Furthermore, Manchin-Toomey had a number of pro-Second amendment provisions," that the Democratic version lacks.
McGinty said Toomey's votes will likely place him on the same side of the issue as Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas).
"The idea that Pat Toomey is moderate on guns just isn't true and unfortunately it seems that today he's going to prove that again," she said in a call with reporters hours before the scheduled votes. "Talk is cheap – the power of a senator is the power of their vote."
In an op-ed Sunday, Toomey wrote that he has tried to find a middle ground that satisfies both sides of the issue, including on a plan to close the so-called "terror gap" for terrorism suspects trying to buy guns.
"In my five-and-a-half years in the Senate, there is no policy area that has been more frustrating to deal with than the issue of gun purchases," he wrote in the Inquirer. "It is frustrating because lives are at stake. And it is frustrating because both sides of the debate rarely show any understanding of the values of the other side, or exhibit the political courage to stand up to their own side when it is wrong. I have done both."
Toomey and other Republicans have said they agree with the idea of barring gun purchases by people on the "no-fly" list and other terror watch lists. Democrats, led in part by Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) have said that anyone barred from boarding a plane should be barred from buying a gun.
The fourth bill on the floor is from Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). It would seek to beef up the information shared with the federal background check system, but would not expand such checks to cover any more types of gun sales. His plan would also make it harder to add certain people to the system due to mental health concerns.
"These are amendments to divert attention from the real legislation," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nevada).
Some lawmakers, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), are said to be working on yet another compromise plan to close the terror gap – though after Monday, it's unclear if the Senate will continue considering this issue, or move on to other topics.
Booker helped lead a nearly 15-hour blockade of the Senate floor last week to force Monday's votes, and is one of the lead sponsors on the Democratic background check bill.