By Steve Turnham
CNN Political Unit
Sticking to his guns: Minority Leader Tom Daschle is under fire from gun control groups mad at his support for protecting gunmakers and dealers from lawsuits.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats are eager to fight this election on the economy, education, the deficit -- but today they're stuck fighting each other over one of the most potent wedge issues around -- guns.
Today the Senate continues to debate a bill protecting gun dealers and makers from negligence lawsuits, and the Democrats are all over the map.
"We don't have a party stand on the bill," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California. "Members are voting their constituencies." (Full story)
"Sure, this is uncomfortable," said a senior Democratic aide. "It exposes a rift within the caucus."
That rift is between those who represent states wracked by gun violence and those who represent hunting states; between those who believe guns were the reason Al Gore lost in 2000 and those who say the political impact of the gun issue has been overplayed; between those who say the party needs to stand on principle and those who say that's a surefire way to cut the number of Democrats in the Senate to below 40, removing even the possibility of filibustering bills.
Look at Wednesday's cloture vote and the division is there in black and white -- or in this case red and blue. Most red-state Democrats mostly voted for the bill. Most blue-state Democrats voted against it.
On the blue state side: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, and a group of senators from the coasts -- Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Chuck Schumer of New York, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Boxer and Diane Feinstein of California.
John Kerry didn't show up to vote, but he, too, opposes the bill.
"We are tired of this as hell and we're not going to take it anymore," raged Lautenberg.
"When the NRA says jump, too many members of Congress say, 'How high?' " fumed Clinton.
She might have been talking about any of the 24 Democrats who voted with the GOP to proceed with the bill. But opponents of the legislation turn the harshest light on Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who helped write language that opponents say would grant blanket immunity to gunmakers and dealers and cause lawsuits brought by the victims of the Washington-area snipers to be tossed out.
Late Wednesday, Daschle offered an amendment to keep at least those suits alive, but his support for broader liability protections is unwavering.
"This is an issue that's very important to South Dakotans," said Daschle. "We hope we can find a balanced bill."
Gun control groups have put a target on Daschle's back. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is spearheading the opposition (fruitless, given that 75 senators have already voted against blocking the bill), went after Daschle directly in an e-mail campaign.
"Although Senator Daschle is the leader of Senate Democrats, he is currently supporting legislation to give Bull's Eye, the gun dealer whose negligence armed the D.C. Snipers, immunity. I know it's hard to believe, and totally inconsistent with who Senator Daschle is ... but it's true," says the e-mail alert.
It continues: "Why is he doing this? Because he comes from South Dakota and is up for re-election, and the National Rifle Association has a lot of influence there? Maybe. We don't know. But that's a bad excuse, isn't it?"
The Brady Campaign has one thing right: Daschle is in a tough spot back home. He's running for re-election in a state that voted 60 percent for George W. Bush in 2000.
Daschle is not alone. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, is also up for re-election in a Bush state, although it's a far less competitive race. And he's behind the bill 100 percent.
"You know, I come from a rural state, I grew up around guns," said Dorgan. "As a teenager I had a rifle and shotgun, so ..."
And those Democrats who voted for the bill can count on one thing -- the gratitude of the NRA in the coming elections.
The gunfight is likely to drag on into next week and beyond. Feinstein, a lifelong crusader for banning assault weapons, is trying to tack on an amendment re-authorizing the existing ban, which is set to expire in September. In principle, the president supports re-authorization, although he has also said he wants a clean bill without amendments.
It's touch and go whether the Feinstein amendment passes, but if it does, Republicans have promised to kill it when the bill goes to conference committee.
If that happens, Daschle and the pro-gun Democrats will face an excruciating decision: Do they sign on to a Democratic filibuster of the bill to protest an amendment that all Democrats want? Or do they vote for the bill and once again anger their coastal colleagues?
By the way, we're hearing that Vice President Dick Cheney is headed to South Dakota on March 8 to raise money for Daschle's opponent, John Thune. By then the Senate should have voted on the bill.