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Frustrated liberals are asking why a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House can’t manage to close the Guantanamo prison or keep new gun-rights laws from passing.
After all, President Barack Obama pledged to shut down the military detention center on Cuba for suspected terrorists. And Democratic control of the government would suggest that any gun legislation leads to tighter controls on weapons, not expanded use.
Even as they grouse, however, liberal lawmakers acknowledge that no one factor explains last week’s disappointing back-to-back votes in Congress.
The Obama administration is focused on other priorities, they say. Party leaders don’t want to endanger Democratic lawmakers from conservative districts by stressing divisive issues such as gun control.
On Guantanamo, many say, Obama and his allies were caught napping as Republicans stirred public fears about relocating suspected terrorists.
"I think it’s one of the few times that he didn’t think it all the way out," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., an unabashed admirer of the president.
As for trying to keep loaded guns out of national parks, Cummings said, "I don’t think he put a lot of energy into it." Issues such as national security and the distressed economy deserve greater attention, at least for now, he said, adding that the president "picks his fights very carefully."
Such explanations provide small comfort to left-leaning Democrats after eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency and nearly a dozen years of Republican control of Congress.
"We’ll probably end up passing more gun bills" that expand owners’ rights "than we did during the Republican administration," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a leading gun control advocate. "That is what surprises me."
She placed less blame on the White House than on ordinary Americans and advocacy groups that are consistently outflanked by gun owners’ groups, especially the National Rifle Association.
"Until the American people say enough is enough, and get active in it," Democratic control of Congress and the White House will not be enough to turn the tide, said McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman in 1993.
Two votes in Congress last Wednesday dismayed many liberals and exposed the limits of their influence even with Obama as president and Democrats holding solid majorities in both houses.
The Senate voted 90-6 to join the House in blocking the transfer of any prisoners from Guantanamo. Harsh treatment and indefinite detention of suspects there have sparked worldwide criticisms of the U.S. government and helped al-Qaida recruit volunteers, said Obama, who pledges to close the prison early next year. Lawmakers say they want more details on where detainees will be sent.
Also Wednesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to join the Senate in letting people carry loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges. More than 100 House Democrats and 174 Republicans voted for the gun measure, which was attached to an Obama-backed bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies.
Earlier this year, gun-rights supporters derailed a bill to give the District of Columbia voting rights in Congress by adding a provision that would repeal the city’s strict gun regulations.
The gun votes were less surprising to many Democrats than were the Guantanamo developments. The NRA remains among the most powerful lobbies, and many lawmakers take care to stay off its political enemies list.
"People do not want to be on the wrong side of this particular cultural divide," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who supports tougher gun controls. "It’s too bad there’s not a more responsible national organization" to counteract the NRA, he said.
In some ways, the gun-control lobby is choking on Democratic success in congressional races. "The seats we’re picking up come disproportionately from those more conservative areas," Price said, where linking the Democratic Party to gun control can be dangerous at re-election time.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California is another Democrat frustrated by the gun debate. When she asks colleagues why they don’t support tougher restrictions, she said, they reply, "You just don’t get it, Woolsey. You don’t have our districts."
"It has to do with being afraid they’ll lose their election if they stand up against guns," she said.
Guantananamo is a more pressing issue for the administration.
For months, congressional Republicans and conservative commentators said Obama’s plan to close the prison would place terrorists on U.S. soil, even though the locations presumably would be prisons. By the time the administration offered more details and reassurances, congressional Democrats were backpedalling, voting to block funds to relocate detainees.
"I’m not sure they realized the opposition they were going to come up against," Woolsey said.
Many Democratic lawmakers predicted that Obama will resolve the Guantanamo problem and eventually turn to gun issues, where he has advocated ownership rights with "common sense" regulations.
"I do believe that down the road the president will start working on some of the gun violence issues," said McCarthy, the New York Democrat. "But let’s face it," she said. "We’ve got an awful lot of issues on our plate right now."