By ERIC LICHTBLAU
c.2010 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON - Fresh off a string of victories in the courts and Congress, the National Rifle Association is flexing political muscle outside its normal domain, with both Democrats and Republicans courting its favor and avoiding its wrath on issues that sometimes seem to have little to do with guns.
The NRA, long a powerful lobby on gun rights issues, has in recent months also weighed in on such varied issues as health care, campaign finance, credit card regulations and Supreme Court nominees.
In the health care debate earlier this year, for instance, the NRA's lobbyists worked with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to include a little-noticed provision banning insurance companies from charging higher premiums for people with a gun in their home.
The NRA worked out a deal last month exempting itself from a proposal requiring groups active in political spending to disclose their financial donors. Its push this spring for tougher gun rights in the District of Columbia served to effectively kill a measure - once seemingly assured of passage - to give the district a voting seat in Congress.
With a push from the NRA, a popular bill last year restricting credit card lenders came with an odd add-on: It also allowed people to carry loaded guns in national parks. And the gun lobby put potential supporters of the Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on notice this month that a vote for her will be remembered at the ballot boxes in November.
The NRA's burgeoning portfolio is an outgrowth of its success in the courts, congressional officials and political analysts said. With the Supreme Court ruling last month for the second time since 2008 that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to have a gun, the NRA now finds that its defining battle is a matter of settled law, and it has the resources to expand into other areas.
When the NRA had a narrower range of targets, it relied on a core group of political figures and met with stiffer resistance from vocal gun control advocates in Congress and outside groups. It now has freer rein to leave its mark politically on issues that once seemed out of its reach.
"The last two years have been a disaster for us," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a longtime advocate of increased gun control. "A lot of members are just afraid of the NRA"
On Monday, the NRA began broadcasting advertisements urging senators to oppose or filibuster the Kagan nomination. But the group's top priority is still finding ways to use the Supreme Court ruling in cities, states and courts nationwide to overturn more restrictive gun laws and establish gun rights measures.
NRA officials say they are determined to protect gun rights even if it means using the group's $307 million budget and membership of more than 4 million gun owners to influence ancillary issues.
"What you're seeing is a recognition that support for the Second Amendment is a not only a very powerful voting bloc but a very powerful political force." Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said in an interview last week at the group's Washington office, a few blocks from the Capitol.
He pointed to the debate this spring over loosening gun laws in the District of Columbia after a 2008 Supreme Court ruling found the city's gun ban unconstitutional. At the time, advocates for district voting rights saw their best chance in many years to gain a voting seat in the House, but they abandoned their own proposal after gun rights supporters attached a provision weakening local gun laws.
"I honestly don't care about D.C. voting rights," Cox said of the legislative maneuvering. "I care about reforming D.C. gun laws, and we're going to use voting rights or any other vehicle at our disposal to address what we consider a blatant disregard for the Constitution."
The NRA was just as aggressive last month in getting congressional Democrats to carve out an exemption tailor-made for the group to exclude it from the so-called Disclose Act, requiring disclosure of donors, rather than risk a defeat of the whole bill because of opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats supportive of gun rights.
"They shot holes in the Disclose Act with such precision and force that it would make an NRA member proud," said Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer who specializes in lobbying issues.
But the group's muscle has generated tensions with some gun owners themselves, who do not like the idea of the NRA straying into areas outside its core base and cajoling with Democrats as it broadens its agenda.
The headline on a recent blog posting from a rival faction, the Gun Owners of America, targeting the NRA's exemption from the campaign finance bill, captured the sentiment: "The NRA Sells out Freedom to the Democrats."
A point of contention on both the left and the right is the NRA's close working relationship with Reid, the Senate leader who helped get a number of pro-gun rights measures included in broader bills.
That relationship has led some gun rights supporters to lobby against the idea that the NRA might endorse Reid in his tough re-election campaign this November in Nevada.
The NRA is not tamping down speculation. While Cox said the group had not decided on any endorsements, he pointed to what he considered an unattractive alternative if Reid loses and the Democrats hold power.
"I'll give you four words - Majority Leader Chuck Schumer," he said.
Reid, for his part, does not run from his support for the NRA. His office noted that he had been a longtime "champion of the Second Amendment."
One reason for the group's greater political leverage is that battles in Washington are so closely fought now that powerful interest groups hold more sway even if they can only deliver a handful of votes.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, said in pursuing an ambitious legislative agenda, President Barack Obama - who has been largely silent on gun issues - and congressional Democrats must either work with the gun lobby or risk losing votes.
"They basically end up saying, 'We're willing to capitulate to the NRA to get the greater good of whatever passed,"' he said.
That approach bothers him and McCarthy, who first came to politics on a pro-gun-control platform after a gunman with a semi-automatic weapon killed her husband and five others during a rampage on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
McCarthy said the group drew its power from its money - it has donated more than $17.5 million to federal candidates, mostly Republicans, since 1989 - and the fear of political retribution.
"I've told the Democratic leadership, if you give in to them once, you're going to see every piece of legislation with a gun amendment added to it," she said. "But it's put the leadership in a very difficult position because they know they might not get their bill passed."
NRA leaders say they plan on broadening their efforts.
"I think we've done it better than any organization in the country, to be honest," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president.