It’s 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 17, and the vote on his bill to expand background checks isn’t until the afternoon, but Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is already conducting an autopsy. “Now, I haven’t had the chance to do a full postmortem, but we were under a lot time pressure,” he says, as we talk over coffee at a Capitol Hill restaurant. “If we had had the luxury and time to roll this out differently, maybe we would have ended up in a better place.”
Toomey knew by Tuesday night that his proposal, which he co-sponsored with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was dead. A handful of his GOP colleagues — Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — were supportive, but most Senate Republicans told him they’d oppose it. Toomey sighs as he recalls their explanations. “It’s been a little frustrating,” he says. “All of the misinformation — and there was a lot of it — wasn’t helpful.”
The National Rifle Association, especially, irks him. As Toomey laments ahead of the vote, he wonders aloud why the group — which once supported expanded background checks — now thinks they’re a threat to the Second Amendment. “The Republican base is prepared to believe the worst about this bill,” he says. “Yet back in 1999, the NRA, Republicans, and conservatives voted for a bill like this, and that bill didn’t have the protections for gun owners that are included in our bill. A national gun registry is explicitly excluded — it’s illegal — but that seems to be a fact that people have chosen to overlook.”
Ultimately, the Toomey-Manchin amendment failed by a 54–46 vote, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed to stop a filibuster. For Toomey, however, the vote was more than a legislative stumble; it underscored the evolution of a conservative favorite.
For the past decade, Toomey has been known as a right-wing agitator — a three-term congressman who famously challenged moderate Republican Arlen Specter in a 2004 Senate primary. The 51-year-old Harvard graduate is also a former president of the Club for Growth, a group that often fights the Republican establishment. But Toomey’s recent bipartisan work on gun control, among other issues, has turned the freshman senator into an unexpected pragmatist.
In a Senate full of rabble-rousers who are cheered for repeatedly saying no, Toomey has become the rare conservative Republican viewed by Democrats as a reasonable behind-the-scenes negotiator. While other Republican senators have tried to build bipartisan consensus by focusing on a single bill at a time, such as such as Marco Rubio on immigration, Toomey has devoted himself to attempting to broker deals on several issues, and he’s forged relationships with Democrats, from moderates like Manchin to liberals such as Chuck Schumer. Even President Obama has personally reached out to Toomey over a private dinner and phone calls.
Toomey tips his hat to Schumer for his knack of doing something that’s quite difficult in the Senate: convincing his members to settle for half a loaf. “I’ve got to tell you, most liberals have absolutely zero enthusiasm for my bill with Senator Manchin,” he says. “They wanted to do more background checks, and they hate the parts that ensure that gun owners are protected. But Chuck Schumer was able to get those guys. He was able to say, ‘I know you hate it, but from our point of view, it’s better than what we have now, so you should take it.’”