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The real reason Democrats and Republicans are fighting over whether to vote on doomed gun bills

Democrats Hold Sit In In House Chamber To Force Vote On Gun Control Legislation Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Democrats are staging a sit-in on the House floor to demand a vote on their gun control bills. The one thing they don’t like to talk about is that even if they got their votes, the bills wouldn’t pass.

Indeed, this is one key reason they’ve resorted to the sit-in tactic. In the normal course of House business, the Speaker — i.e., the majority party caucus — controls the agenda. But it is possible for rank-and-file members to demand a vote by getting a majority of members to sign a discharge petition, asking that a bill be brought to the floor. But as Politico reported, gun control proponents determined that “they didn’t have the support” for such a petition to even come close to succeeding — meaning they’re also not close to having the votes they would need to pass the bill if it did come to the floor for a vote.

So why are Democrats fighting so hard for votes they know they will lose? And why don’t Republicans just end the issue by quickly holding a couple of votes they will win?

All about the attack ads

The expanded background check bill and especially the bill to allow the FBI to veto gun purchases by terrorism suspects is a reasonably rare case of a piece of legislation where Democrats are very eager to have the vote per se and don’t particularly care whether or not the bill passes. The bills in question simply wouldn’t do very much in terms of curbing gun violence, and many liberal opinion leaders think the “no gun list” idea is actively pernicious — expanding the significance of a secret and accountability-free corner of the surveillance state that appears to operate in a discriminatory manner. And given the heightened constitutional scrutiny around a measure that touches on the Second Amendment, any such law would inevitably prompt years of litigation and possibly be thrown out in the courts.

The real appeal of the bill isn’t to pass a new law, it’s to run ads against the members of Congress who vote against it.

Elizabeth Warren’s particular formulation of this attack is so over the top that I bet you wouldn’t see it used in fall campaigns. Fact-checkers and media scolds would lambaste a candidate who leaned heavily on this kind of rhetoric, and even in the Age of Trump most Democrats still care about wrist-slaps from gatekeepers.

But a slightly toned-down ad arguing that Representative So-and-So even voted to let suspected terrorists buy military-style assault weapons like the one used to slaughter dozens in Orlando would pass muster under any normal journalistic standard.

Real votes make for better hits

Yes, fact-checkers would note the larger context — the ACLU’s concerns about the bill, the questionable accuracy of the watch list, the issues about due process — but the fact remains that the line is accurate. It’s a nice hit any challenger in a contested race would love to have at her disposal, and it gives Democrats something to talk about when the conversation turns to terrorism.

But note that the key here is to actually get Representative So-And-So to pass the vote. If Republicans succeed in simply killing the bill passively by using their control over the House agenda to ensure that it doesn’t come to the floor for a vote, then there’s no clean hit on So-And-So. You can still try to tag him with it, but he can always muddy the waters by voicing some kind of vague desire to address the issue. In a pinch, he can even say that he would hypothetically vote for such a bill.

Getting members on the record with explicit votes cast is important to maximizing the efficacy of the political strategy in a fairly unusual way, and that’s one reason Democrats are willing to go to the mattresses for it even though the bill will fail.