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Breaking Up Isn't So Hard to Do

Why Harry Reid and the NRA parted ways

Getty/T.J. Kirkpatrick

It wasn't so long ago that Harry Reid and Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association CEO, looked like a wizened, cordial couple as they celebrated the grand opening of a Las Vegas shooting range—the summer of 2009, in fact. But just a year later the NRA, despite its "B" rating of the Senate majority leader, declined to endorse him in a hard-fought race against Republican Sharron Angle. So when Reid prepared last month to introduce background-check legislation opposed by the NRA, the New York Times dutifully noted  their breakup.

It has not been amicable. Reid has set a hard deadline for the bill's sole Republican collaborator, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, to contribute compromise language or to take a walk. After thirteen conservatives sent a letter to Reid threatening to filibuster the legislation, he stood on the Senate floor Tuesday and recalled how his father's suicide—he shot himself in 1972—inspired him to write a Nevada state law requiring waiting periods to buy handguns.

But who officially ended things? Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political forecaster, says the senator did. "Reid is trying to do what he's always done—put all these political calculations into a cauldron, and cook up something that's pleasing to as many members of his caucus as possible." That's no small challenge for a pro-gun politician in a pro-gun state who, as Senate majority leader, has to worry about at least five colleagues facing reelection next year in red states. But neither is the challenge insurmountable. "There is a reason that a guy who's not the most charismatic guy in the world when you hear him talk, who doesn't represent the prototypical leader of a House of Congress, has stuck around for so long," Ralston said.

Mark Blaze, of Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has been lobbying Senate leadership on this issue for five years. All that time, he said, Reid and his cohort understood that the NRA was not the electoral decider it purported to be. What changed was Democrats' willingness to bet on that. "And Reid is no more to blame for that than any other member of Congress, or the public," Blaze said. "Now, when 90 percent of the public and 74 percent of NRA members think that everybody should get a background check before purchasing a gun, the percent of people who are on the other side is about the same number of Americans who believe Elvis is still alive."

Not everyone attributes to breakup to Reid, though. "The fact that LaPierre wanted to go stand next to Reid back then, and now the NRA is opposing background checks, says more about LaPierre than Reid," said a senior Democratic leadership aide. "There's nothing inconsistent now with the position Reid has taken in the past. … [The NRA] used to support background checks. Now they don't." As long ago as 1999, Reid voted twice to expand background checks on individuals purchasing firearms at gun shows.

Still, neither Ralston nor Blaze believe Reid would have introduced a gun-control measure to the Senate just three years ago. Evolution or not, his efforts may be thwarted at least briefly by Ted Cruz and company's threat to filibuster the legislation—a tool at their disposal because Reid himself forged a weak compromise on filibuster reform earlier this year. At the time, Reid said, "I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold." But maybe he'll evolve on that, too, as his most recent changes of heart have been over high-profile legislation which Republicans then filibustered. The DREAM Act, which Reid threw his weight behind after apologizing for the harsh, anti-immigration stance he took in the '90s, fell to a filibuster in 2010. The 2010 bill to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which originated with Reid saying he regretted his 1993 vote for DADT and would support repealing it, also became a filibuster victim. It took a second vote, which Reid committed to only warily, to pass the repeal. 

Reid has been similarly wary in committing to gun-control legislation, but this much is clear: There's no getting back together with the NRA. "Democrats have caught on to the notion that you can ignore your constituents and kowtow to the gun lobby 'til the cows come home, and they are still not going to be your buddy," Blaze said. He pointed out that under Obama, the NRA has taken to scoring judicial confirmation votes—even when the nominees have no record on NRA issues. In fact, Reid's votes for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were part of the NRA's stated rationale for withholding their endorsement of him in 2010.

Is Reid the kind of politician who would figure that snub into his political calculus?

Ralston laughed. "By 'that kind of a politician,' do you mean vindictive? By 'that kind of a politician,' do you mean, doesn't easily forget slights? Oh yeah." According to people close to Reid, when the NRA declined to endorse him, "I know he was irked, rankled, furious, who knows what degrees of anger," Ralston said. "He may forgive, but he does not forget. And I'm not sure he forgives."