WASHINGTON – Even before New Jersey’s new U.S. senator took the oath of office, Democrats seemed to be lobbying the Republican for his vote on a key legislative priority: expanded background checks on gun buyers.
Jeffrey Chiesa, appointed last week by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to temporarily fill the seat vacated after the death of Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg, was sworn in on the Senate floor Monday afternoon. Chiesa’s appointment cuts into what had been a 10-seat advantage for Democrats at the start of the year, giving Republicans what could be a key vote on any number of issues set to be considered.
One of his first votes will be on a motion to begin debating a comprehensive immigration plan on Tuesday. But Democrats signaled Monday they were already courting his vote on the gun issue, one that Lautenberg had championed in his 28 years in the Senate.
Before Chiesa took the oath, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced him by noting some of the “remarkable things” he had done in his previous post – including implementing “a successful gun buyback program that took 10,000 weapons off the streets, including 1,200 illegal guns.”
“I commend him for his efforts to keep New Jersey’s streets safe and protecting Americans from gun violence. As we all know, that was something very close to Sen. Lautenberg’s heart,” Reid said.
The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said only that after meeting with Chiesa earlier in the day that he felt Christie “has made a wise appointment, and we look forward to working with him.”
Chiesa had been serving as the state attorney general in New Jersey and has long ties to Christie, but the governor said last week that Chiesa would not be his “proxy” in the chamber. Chiesa said he would not take questions from reporters yet about the issues before him in his new role.
The Senate is expected to spend the remainder of the month debating immigration reform. The bipartisan plan to expand background checks offered by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) could be revived soon afterward, before lawmakers adjourn for a monthlong August recess. It originally received 55 votes, including Lautenberg’s, five shy of the 60-vote threshold Senate leaders agreed to require for amendments to a larger gun safety bill.
Vice President Joe Biden, who swore in Chiesa, told reporters that he expects to speak with Reid soon to “see what the game plan here is.”
“I personally haven’t given up, nor has the president,” Biden told reporters.
Some families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings are expected to travel to Washington later this week to lobby senators, marking what will be the six-month anniversary of the massacre.
Manchin said in an interview with Bloomberg TV last week that he was “at 50-50 to where I think we can pick up five more members.” Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point-person on guns, said lobbying efforts continued on his part. “I always talk to wavering senators,” he said.
Chiesa will serve until an Oct. 16 special election to fill Lautenberg’s unexpired term, which runs through January 2015. Chiesa opted not to run in the election. Democratic candidates include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and two of the state’s congressmen, Frank Pallone Jr. and Rush D. Holt. Conservative activist and former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan also filed petitions ahead of Monday’s deadline to seek the seat, thus far the only Republican to do so.