By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Dianne Feinstein is known for being courtly and polite. Last month, she became one of two senators to win Allegheny College's award for civility in public life.
Though Republicans have harshly criticized her assault-weapons bill, Feinstein has been calm and unflappable in defending the proposal she introduced on January 24.
But not on Thursday.
Before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on a party-line vote of 10-8 to approve the bill, California's senior senator lost her cool when the junior senator from Texas asked a question that the Democratic lawmaker considered patronizing.
The clash between the 20-year Senate veteran and Ted Cruz, a tea party Republican who began his Senate career in January, highlighted the tensions simmering beneath the veneer of senatorial decorum. And it showed that Democrats and Republicans are far from overcoming their differences over the politically charged issue of gun control.
Echoing other Republicans, Cruz said an assault-weapons ban would violate the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. He proceeded to advise Democratic committee members to follow the Constitution and reminded them that the First Amendment guarantees free speech and the Fourth Amendment bans unreasonable searches and seizures.
"The question that I would pose to the senior senator from California is, would she deem it consistent with the Bill of Rights for Congress to (limit) . . . the First and the Fourth Amendment?" Cruz said.
"Would she consider it constitutional for Congress to specify that the First Amendment shall apply only to the following books?" he asked. "Would she think that the Fourth Amendment . . . could properly apply only to the following specified individuals?"
"I'm not a sixth-grader," Feinstein responded testily. "Senator, I've been on this committee for 20 years."
The more she spoke the sharper her tone became.
"I'm not a lawyer, but after 20 years I've been up close and personal with the Constitution. I have great respect for it," she said. "I've been here a long time. I've passed a number of bills. I've studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well-educated, and I thank you for the lecture."
When Cruz accused her of evading his question, Feinstein interrupted him with a curt response: "The answer is obvious. No."
She apologized to Cruz later in the hearing.
Other Democrats came to her defense, saying courts have allowed legislators to restrict even the fundamental rights.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the First Amendment is not absolute because child pornography is illegal, although it's arguably protected by the free speech umbrella. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said people can speak their minds but they still can't yell "fire" in a crowded room for fun.
Democrats say the assault-weapon ban is constitutionally sound. They point to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that said the government can impose some limits on the Second Amendment. Republicans say banning assault weapons won't pass the legal test created in that case to determine if a gun ban is constitutional or not.
No Republican supported Cruz, who has been chided publicly by Democrats and Republicans like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for making blustery remarks at committee hearings and on the Senate floor.
Senior Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, tried to change Feinstein's bill four times during Thursday's "markup" session, but was rebuffed by Democrats, who hold the majority.
Cornyn joked that he will wait until the bill reaches the Senate floor to offer other amendments because he didn't want to "burn bridges unnecessarily." That evoked laughter from the Democratic side.
Thursday's committee approval means Feinstein has overcome the first hurdle. The next step is for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to schedule a vote on the Senate floor -- where Republicans will try to defeat it or mount a filibuster to block a vote.
The National Rifle Association opposes the bill.
Feinstein, the author of a 1994 ban that lawmakers let expire a decade later, has long argued that military-style assault weapons like those used in last year's mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school and a Colorado movie theater are "weapons of war" that don't belong in civilian hands.
Her bill would ban 157 makes and models of military-style assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and semiautomatic weapons. Fixed ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 rounds and civilian models that are almost identical to military weapons also would be outlawed.
A total of 2,258 makes and models of hunting and sporting rifles wouldn't be affected by the ban. People also wouldn't have to give up assault weapons they bought after the previous ban expired in 2004.
Feinstein has been a gun-control advocate since she began her Senate career in 1993. In 1978, when she was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a former supervisor shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the noted gay-rights leader. She was one of the first to reach the scene. When she tried to find Milk's pulse, her finger slid into a bullet wound.
Gannett Washington Bureau