Max Baucus' decision to resign could give gun control advocates a chance to revive their failed background-check legislation with a simple plan: Make it all about Baucus.
The legislation failed last week by six votes. One was Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted no on procedural grounds. Among the others were North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who had reportedly signaled that she might be willing to cast a crucial 60th vote — but that she would not risk her career for a symbolic 57th. Similarly, it has been reported that the bill's supporters had an unnamed Republican who might have voted for a winning bill but wouldn't go down in flames with a losing one.
The bill failed, then, by well under six votes. And the nature of contested legislation is that senators may be willing to cast the 60th vote when they won't cast the 59th. Were Baucus to shamelessly directly change his mind, he could well pass the bill.
Baucus has not exactly given eloquent defenses for his opposition to background checks. He explained his "no" vote to reporters with a single word: "Montana."
He was also never a particular target for advocates, because his vote wasn't considered in play.
"He was decidedly uninterested in it when we met," Jen Bluestein, the communications director for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, told my colleague Evan McMorris-Santoro. Baucus "seemed to be suggesting he didn't believe the polls showing strong support for it among Montanans," Bluestein said.
So what if that changed? It's not something gun control advocates or the White House, currently licking their wounds, are considering, but it's a provocative thought, and one that some senior Democrats have begun to weigh.
"The whole thing hinges on one guy now," one top Democratic political operative suggested to me Tuesday. "If you want background checks, lock on to Max Baucus and do not let go."
This is not, superficially, beyond the scope of imagination. Indeed, those of us who watched anything from the health care fight to the passage of marriage equality through the New York State Senate have seen what imaginative, muscular executives and legislative leaders can do. This White House saw its health care overhaul declared dead, then rise again. And there's a hallowed path for this sort of reversal: Leadership could give Baucus and two more senators cover to switch their votes with a modest change to the legislation for which they could claim credit.
I should pause to note that people who watch the Senate closely — including my colleagues in BuzzFeed's Washington bureau — tell me this is not likely to happen. My flight of fancy requires ignoring the fact that people close to Reid say he has no intention of putting the bill back on the floor, an extremely unusual move, and ignoring Baucus' reputation for stubbornness.
But if there's a consistent trend in the Senate, it's that retiring senators often trade in one constituency for another. They stick with their adopted homes, taking lucrative lobbying jobs in the Capitol. They may not like the legislation in Montana. But how about the District of Columbia?
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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