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Capital Beat: What did the House’s gun background check votes really mean? It’s complicated

Listen to some lefties, and you’ll hear that Wednesday’s vote to eventually kill a gun background checks bill was the result of Republican trickery that doesn’t reflect the Legislature’s true support for background checks.

Listen to people from the right, and you’ll hear that the vote of 242-118 to kill the bill sent a clear message that House members overwhelmingly oppose expanding background checks.

Unfortunately for both sides, the explanation isn’t that simple.

The House took eight votes on HB 1589, a bill to extend background checks to all commercial gun sales but not requiring checks for sales between family and friends. Many were strategic votes that didn’t necessarily reflect lawmakers’ positions on background checks. Only two of those votes were recorded by name, letting the lawmakers get off with relatively clean hands on a politically charged issue and making it impossible to flesh out why everyone did what they did.

But interviews with several lawmakers and party leadership made clear the overall strategies at play.

Here goes:

Republicans went into the vote planning to table the bill right away, but a motion to do so lost by just two votes, indicating there was at least some appetite for a full debate on the bill.

Then the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee introduced an amendment that substantially watered down the original bill by making background checks extend only to commercial sales and not to sales between friends and family members. The amendment was accepted by a vote of 174-166, only five of them Republicans. Some liberal groups, such as Granite State Progress, are saying this vote means the House passed the bill.

That’s not really true. Some lawmakers who would’ve killed the bill in the end accepted the amendment because, in the unexpected event of passage, it was much more palatable to them.

This next vote was the key vote of the day: Rep. Laura Jones, a Rochester Republican, introduced an amendment by four fellow Republicans that changed the bill from one that would expand background checks into one that would create a study committee to “study the correlation between the current New Hampshire law and the low violent crime rate in this state.” This bill passed 177-175, with 23 Democrats voting in favor.

For Republicans, seeing a majority of House members vote to completely gut and change the bill indicated there wasn’t enough Democratic support to pass expanding background checks.

“We felt fairly comfortable after that vote,” said Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican.

Done, right? Nope, not even close.

Rep. Edward Butler, a Hart’s Location Democrat, and Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook said they felt the proposed study committee was clearly skewed in favor of opponents of stricter regulation because it would have included three House Democrats, three House Republicans and one senator appointed by Republican Senate President Chuck Morse.

So Butler voted to table the bill, saying the makeup of the committee needed more work.

But lawmakers knew they were in for a potentially late night, and Republicans worried Democrats would take the measure back off the table and change it late in the evening when some representatives had gone home. The motion to table failed, 173-183.

Enter Rep. George Lambert, a Litchfield Republican, who moved for indefinite postponement, the biggest and loudest way to kill a bill. But Lambert overplayed his hand – most lawmakers prefer a more polite death, known as inexpedient to legislate – and he lost 133-226.

“I think a lot of people just thought that was overkill,” Chandler explained.

These next three votes are where it gets especially tricky to label anything as an overwhelming victory for either side.

A vote of “ought to pass with amendment,” which would have created the study committee, failed 165-195. Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican who had created the study committee amendment, never really wanted it, and had earlier encouraged lawmakers to vote in favor of Lambert’s motion.

He does not believe New Hampshire has a gun problem and said after the vote he only wrote it as a “backup plan” to avoid the full background check expansion.

That means he likely voted against creating the study committee, although votes weren’t recorded by name.

But also voting against it was Butler, who wants expanded background checks but thought the study committee was unfair.

At this point, it was clear that the bill wasn’t going to pass, but opponents needed to make sure it was dead for certain.

The House voted 242-118 to kill the bill – the vote Hoell and others say shows overwhelming opposition to expanded background checks.

And because nothing in the New Hampshire Legislature can ever end easily, there was one more step to keep Democrats from staying late into the night and trying to bring the bill back to life, known as “reconsideration.”

Chandler made a motion to reconsider hoping it would fail – and it did – meaning it was dead. Done. Over. Not coming back.

After eight complicated votes, some things are more clear than others: The House did not have the votes to pass a bill expanding background checks, as became apparent with the close vote to turn the bill into a study commission. But does the 242-118 vote to kill the bill show two-thirds of House members are against expanding background checks, as Hoell said it does? Hardly.

Who’s missing?

Republican Andrew Hemingway announced an 18-member steering committee this week to help guide his campaign against Gov. Maggie Hassan. It’s chaired by former U.S. senator Gordon Humphrey and made up of state representatives, young entrepreneurs and libertarian and party activists, including former gubernatorial candidate John Babiarz.

Notably absent are the names of many major players in state Republican politics, from current and former officeholders to top political consultants. Not on the list, for example, are U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former congressman Charlie Bass, Senate President Chuck Morse or Majority Leader Jeb Bradley. Consultants such as Jim Merrill, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, and Jamie Burnett, who ran Kevin Smith’s candidacy for governor, are also missing. In comparison, Ovide Lamontagne had announced a steering committee of 200 people when he ran for governor against Hassan in 2012.

It looks like top state Republicans aren’t quite ready to coalesce around Hemingway as the party’s nominee. No other candidates have declared, but Republicans privately say they’re still waiting to see who might jump in the race by the June filing deadline.

“I think a lot of activists are probably waiting to see the field set,” said Republican National committeeman Steve Duprey.

“If there aren’t other candidates in the race, I’m sure you’ll see more of the usual suspects (supporting Hemingway).”

But Duprey also said the list is a good start for Hemingway, who is a young and relatively new face to most Republican voters. Duprey said given his role in the national party he will not be taking a position in a potential Republican primary.

Hemingway is part of the more libertarian circle of the Republican party, and he’s known for previously leading the libertarian Republican Liberty Caucus and running an insurgent campaign against Jennifer Horn for state party chair last year (he lost.)

But among the general public, he’s got very low name ID, a fact his team is aware of. His campaign manager, Alicia Preston, who formerly worked for one-term Republican Gov. Craig Benson, said Hemingway’s been introducing himself to prominent Republicans and that this list is just a start.

“We feel confident in the coming weeks Andrew will be able to grow his base of support,” she said.

Still, there’s that “who else” factor that mirrors what’s happening in the U.S. Senate race as Republicans who are dissatisfied with the current field wait to see if former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown jumps in.

Tom Rath, who’s advised a number of Senate and presidential candidates, said early money and support are key in the race, and any Republican candidate still looking to declare needs to start gathering both.

“It gets late early in this game,” he said.

What to watch

∎ The Senate’s bipartisan Medicaid expansion plan – or whatever you want to call it – will get its first public airing Tuesday in a hearing in the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee. The plan would use federal Medicaid dollars to bring at least 50,000 low-income people on private health insurance plans on a trial basis ending in 2017. All of this hinges on a waiver from the federal government.

The hearing begins at 9:15 a.m. in State House Room 100.

∎ On Thursday, the full Senate will take up a bill that would establish a 25-foot “buffer zone” from protesters around abortion clinics. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing the constitutionality of a similar law in Massachusetts establishing a 35-foot buffer zone. The Senate Judiciary Committee recommends killing the bill, 3-2.

∎ Also on Thursday, at 10 a.m., the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will vote on a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana that it heard last week. The committee voted against a bill last year decriminalizing even smaller amounts, but the full House passed it anyway.

Back to House of Cards

Thanks to all of you who took some time away from a marathon viewing of House of Cards to read this column (especially the lengthy explanation of that complicated gun debate.)

If only the show’s creators could see how things work in the New Hampshire Legislature.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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