Washington • In the contentious gun debate, President Barack Obama is trying to paint Sen. Mike Lee and his friends as the villains obstructionists bent on blocking even a vote on legislation crafted after a horrendous shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
The president and his congressional allies are not attempting to change Lee's mind, rather their aim is to stop other Republicans from rallying to his cause.
Lee, R-Utah, and his closest Senate allies, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, have led an effort to require any gun bill to get 60 votes before moving forward, and 11 other Republicans have since joined them, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's a move that could kill still-evolving gun legislation on expanded background checks, which up to this point has some conservative Democrats and most Republicans queasy.
"Some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms. Think about that," Obama said in a rally in Connecticut on Monday. "They're not just saying they'll vote 'no' on ideas that almost all Americans support. They're saying they'll do everything they can to even prevent any votes on these provisions. They're saying your opinion doesn't matter. And that's not right."
After his speech, Obama escorted a dozen family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to Air Force One, which brought them to Washington to lobby Congress this week.
Lee says the president's characterization is unfair.
Utah's junior senator sees himself as a freedom fighter protecting the Second Amendment rights of everyday citizens from onerous and ineffective gun policies that Obama is trying to ram through Congress.
"The country deserves a debate about the meaning and the purpose of the Second Amendment," Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune. "They also deserve to make sure that legislation that threatens to restrict the rights of law-abiding Americans significantly while doing little or nothing to actually prevent violent crime ought not be hurried through the Senate and rubber-stamped through a series of backroom deals."
Democrats have already acknowledged that a new assault weapons ban is a nonstarter in Congress, but they are holding out hope that a bill to broaden background checks on gun buyers is still politically saleable, pointing to surveys that say 90 percent of Americans are on board. Two senators, Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are trying to hammer out a compromise on the issue.
"Let's have a debate on violence in America," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who plans to hold a vote to end the filibuster on Thursday. "Many Senate Republicans are afraid to even engage in this debate. Shame on them."
Lee said the survey results are trumped up because they don't point out to respondents that background checks would require the government to collect information on who owns what guns, which is far less popular with the public.
And he says he's not trying to stop a debate, he's trying to extend it. He's not trying to block a vote, he's trying to make sure that any bill has bipartisan support. Democrats control 55 seats and could theoretically pass a bill without any Republican support. Using filibuster rules, Lee can require Democrats to get at least 60 votes to end discussion and move to a final vote.
Some of his party's leaders don't like Lee's tactics on this issue.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the Lee-Paul-Cruz effort on CBS' "Face the Nation," saying, "What are we afraid of?"
"I don't understand it," he said. "The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand."
And Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., agrees with Obama that the gun-control ideas deserve a straight up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has remained silent on the idea of a filibuster, saying he'll reserve judgment until he sees what the final proposal looks like. Hatch voted against the gun-control measures when they came up in the Judiciary Committee and criticized the president's push for new gun laws.
Even if a bill did make it through the Senate, it would face a difficult path through the Republican-controlled House. But Lee said he won't bank on the House stopping a bill that makes it through the Senate.
"I don't know what would happen in the House; I'm not in the House," he said. "My job is to worry about the Senate and that is what I'm doing."
Twitter: @mattcanham Biden: Threats to block gun bill 'embarrassing'
Vice President Joe Biden says he refuses to believe a small group of senators will block a vote on gun legislation.
The vice president says it would be "embarrassing" if a filibuster would be the climax of a national tragedy like the shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Biden spoke to law enforcement officers at the White House just before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced he would push for a vote Thursday. He encouraged the police and sheriff's deputies to go talk to their lawmakers in uniform to encourage passage of the bill.
Biden vowed to win the fight on guns, even if this vote is blocked. He said Americans won't stand for inaction after Sandy Hook.
The Associated Press