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In the Senate, a gun rights ally's choice to compromise

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III has easily kept an A rating from the National Rifle Assn. But after the Newtown shootings, he said, 'I have to do something.'

April 15, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), left, meets last week with the parents of shooting victims in Newtown, Conn. Manchin has long supported gun rights and is now proposing the expansion of background checks.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), left, meets last week with the parents of… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin III owns two 12-gauge Beretta shotguns, a semiautomatic Remington 58 Sportsman and a deer rifle. Since he was elected to the Senate two years ago, he has easily maintained an A rating from the National Rifle Assn.

That rating might be considered crucial to the survival of a Democrat from a conservative, rural state like West Virginia. So after news broke of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings on a Friday in December, his staff debated what he should do.

The consensus was that Manchin should cancel a scheduled appearance the following Monday to talk about fiscal issues on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Surely the hosts would press the senator on gun control, and it seemed that almost anything he said could spell trouble so early in the aftermath of the tragedy.

But Manchin, whose father owned a furniture store in the small town of Farmington, W.Va., had been weighing the subject for months, after other significant gun crimes. Learning about the "horrific" details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, as he was surrounded by his three children and eight young grandchildren during a family gathering in Pittsburgh, provided a new spark.

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Manchin phoned allies at the NRA and other past supporters, including Frank Jezioro, director of West Virginia's Department of Natural Resources, which has oversight of hunting. He shared his thinking — that everything needed to be on the table, and all sides needed to be represented in the gun debate. An aide told Manchin it could be a "watershed moment" in politics, coming from someone who famously fired a rifle at a piece of legislation he opposed for a Senate campaign ad.

"It's the right thing to do," Manchin said, according to aides who were part of the discussions. "I have to do something."

On Monday, Manchin will be on the Senate floor throughout the day, defending his compromise gun legislation from some of his former allies. He is stung by what is being said about him and his proposal to expand background checks to cover most commercial gun buyers.

"All these lies and distortions, and trying to promote paranoia that we're going to take their guns away, repeal the 2nd Amendment, we're going to have a national registry — all of this crazy nonsense by real zealots, real extremist groups and different organizations," Manchin fulminated in a recent interview. It was all, he said, "a bunch of lies."

He said Sunday that he would conduct a kind of reverse filibuster in advance of a vote midweek, detailing his proposal line by line and inviting skeptics to come to the Senate floor with their concerns. With certain bills, "the longer they lay out there the more opposition they build," Manchin said. "This is absolutely the reverse. And I'm thinking the longer the better."

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Manchin, 65, who went to West Virginia University on a football scholarship before being elected to the state Legislature and serving two terms as governor, is as sensitive to criticism from the left as he is of his new critics on the right.

"I just hate it when a person looks at me like there's something wrong, like I've got four hands and two heads because I own a gun," he said.

When the White House first offered a slate of proposals meant to respond to the shootings, Manchin saw a missing ingredient.

"There was a credibility problem," he said, recalling a conversation with Vice President Joe Biden, who helped develop the Obama administration's plans. "I said, 'Mr. Vice President, with all due respect, those of us who come from gun cultures, who really cherish our ability to use our guns.... There are very few people, sir, that would believe that you or anybody on that committee, because they have not come from a gun culture, would truly protect their rights."

By mid-January he set to work on a background check plan that would be an alternative to the one by New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a member of the Democratic Senate leadership. He first sought out another senator with strong gun bona fides, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, as a GOP partner. But after nearly three months of talks, the two reached an impasse on whether to exempt individual transfers that might occur at gun shows.

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Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, with whom Manchin had occasionally spoken on the issue, emerged as his new chief collaborator. Manchin skipped his turn presiding over the Senate on Tuesday so they could close the deal. The final language was negotiated while he attended a birthday party for MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, talking with Toomey on his cellphone, as Schumer stood by his side.

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