Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is expected to replace Sen. Patrick Leahy… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) launched her drive in 1994 to win approval for an assault weapons ban, the relative newcomer to Capitol Hill walked the hallways trying to drum up support. Now, as she prepares for a new fight to pass gun control legislation, she is likely to be doing it from a more powerful spot -- as the next head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Feinstein, by virtue of seniority, is in line to succeed current chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is expected to take the Senate Appropriations Committee gavel, following the death Monday of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii.)
Although the Senate Democratic leadership has yet to make an announcement, Feinstein said Tuesday that she expected to chair the Judiciary Committee starting in January and vowed to make renewal of the assault weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004, and overhauling immigration laws, top priorities.
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Even before the mass shootings last week at a Connecticut school brought gun control center stage on Capitol Hill, Feinstein was working on an updated version of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which she has long regarded as one of her proudest achievements. The pen used by President Clinton to sign the bill hangs prominently in her office.
Feinstein has vowed that on the first day of the next Congress, she will introduce a bill that would stop the sale, import and manufacture of "more than 100 specifically named firearms as well as certain semiautomatic rifles, handguns and shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and semiautomatic rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds."
She said she hoped to hold hearings on gun control legislation next year.
Even as Judiciary Committee chairwoman, she would face long odds in moving an assault weapons bill not only through the Senate, where some of her Democratic colleagues from rural states have joined Republicans in the past in resisting gun control legislation, but especially in the Republican-controlled House.
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But Feinstein sees the ground shifting in the wake of the killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
She said she was encouraged by President Obama’s call to action on gun violence and the willingness of fellow Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia, both longtime 2nd Amendment supporters, to consider new gun restrictions.
"This is an uphill climb ... every step of the way," she said Tuesday.
Noting that some gun control opponents have suggested arming teachers, Feinstein said: "Is this the America that we want? I don’t think so."
"Sure, it’s tough," she said, "but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try."
Feinstein, who became mayor of San Francisco after Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death in City Hall in 1978, launched her initial fight for the ban after a 1993 shooting rampage in a San Francisco office building that left eight people dead and six wounded.
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She walked the halls of Congress with gunshot victims, pressing House lawmakers for votes, an unusual practice for a senator, and recruited law enforcement agencies to lobby House members.
Feinstein is expected to give up the Intelligence Committee chairmanship to take over Judiciary, which oversees the Justice Department and considers judicial nominations, including Supreme Court nominations.
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