There was never any question about whether the Senate would have a debate for reducing gun violence. Bills have already passed committee; bipartisan talks have been underway for weeks on various provisions; and Democratic leaders have said all along that a bill was headed to the floor.
The question, rather, was over what the legislation would include and exclude.
We learned this week, for example, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intended to advance a bill without an assault-weapons ban, and there was some talk in recent days that a provision on universal background checks, despite extraordinary public support, might get scuttled, too. Last night, however, Reid made a statement that brought the debate into sharper focus.
"Later tonight, I will start the process of bringing a bill to reduce gun violence to the Senate floor. This bill will include the provisions on background checks, school safety and gun trafficking reported by the Judiciary Committee. I hope negotiations will continue over the upcoming break to reach a bipartisan compromise on background checks, and I am hopeful that they will succeed. If a compromise is reached, I am open to including it in the base bill. But I want to be clear: in order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks.
"The bill I advance tonight will serve as the basis for opening debate. Once debate begins, I will ensure that a ban on assault weapons, limits to high-capacity magazines, and mental health provisions receive votes, along with other amendments. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for all of these provisions to receive votes, and I will ensure that they do."
This is all rather important. It tells us, for example, that Reid considers background checks a non-negotiable necessity. What is the Majority Leader prepared to fight for? This is. Reid's statement also makes clear that other controversial measures, including an assault-weapons ban, are not dead, and may yet be added to the base bill as amendments.
It remains true that there's been no progress in the bipartisan talks on background checks, but Congress is breaking for two weeks, and negotiations will continue. For now, a Democratic provision on background checks is in the base bill, but it's serving as a placeholder and can be replaced if even one Republican accepts a compromise.
Expect lobbying efforts over the next two weeks to be fairly intense. Reid's statement last night laid down the markers for this debate and made clear to activists on both sides of the fight what's at stake.