Updated, April 10, 10:00 am
As the memory of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., faded, the gun bill it prompted seemed set to sputter toward a quiet death of its own. But amid an aggressive lobbying campaign this week by Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a key procedural vote for the first major gun-control package in two decades, signaling the party had mustered the numbers to overcome a Republican filibuster and setting up a showdown in the Senate on Thursday.
“We’re moving forward on this bill,” the Nevada Democrat told a throng of reporters in an ornate hallway on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol. “The American people deserve a vote.”
(MORE: Gun Control in the Pages of TIME)
But it was far from clear Tuesday night that the Senate, even if it voted to end a filibuster this week, would actually approve a sweeping new gun-control package. The Senate bill, which passed through the Judiciary Committee in March, would expand background checks, curb gun trafficking and set aside $40 million to beef up school security. Elements of the background-check provision inflamed a bloc of Republicans, led by the Tea Party trio of Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, who pledged weeks ago to block consideration of any legislation that infringes on the constitutional right to bear arms. A dozen Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, signed onto the vow, casting doubt not just on the bill’s prospects for passage, but also its ability to win a simple vote. “My belief in the Second Amendment is strong enough that I believe we should use parliamentary procedure to win this fight,” Paul told a business group in Somerset, Ky., late last month.
But the Republican caucus has slowly splintered over the merits of a filibuster, with at least eight Republican senators indicating that they oppose using procedural tactics to block debate. With Democrats controlling 55 seats in the Senate, including two independent members who caucus with the majority, they appear set to garner the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster, as long as conservative Democrats don’t break ranks on Thursday.
That is no sure thing. “I don’t know,” Reid conceded when asked whether the legislation had 60 votes. “I’ve not leaned on any one of my Democratic senators. I don’t get all of the Democrats all of the time. That’s for sure.” If the procedural step known as a “cloture” vote failed, Reid said, he would use parliamentary maneuvers to put the legislation on the floor, such as a provision that allows the majority leader to sidestep the traditional committee process. “We’re going to vote on this anyway,” he said, adding, “it may take a little time.”
Even if the Senate clears a path Thursday toward a final vote later this month, there is no guarantee the bill will ultimately pass. While some 90% of American voters support tougher background checks to stanch the wave of gun violence washing across the U.S., conservatives bitterly oppose record-keeping requirements. In an effort to broker a compromise with a better shot of earning bipartisan support, a pair of negotiators — West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate with a history of supporting gun rights, and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey, a conservative who has emerged as an influential dealmaker — appeared to hash out an agreement late Tuesday night that would expand background checks to commercial sales — including gun shows and online transaction — while excepting some private transfers, such as among family members.
Reid said Tuesday that the two negotiators would be able to introduce their deal, which the senators plan to unveil at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday morning, as an amendment. That process is expected to include votes on banning military-style assault weapons and limiting the size of ammunition clips. Those provisions are likely to fail.
The move toward a vote comes amid an all-out push by the Obama Administration and Democratic Senators to shame conservatives seeking to prevent a vote. On Monday the President traveled to Connecticut, where he harnessed the full powers of the presidential bully pulpit just an hour from the site of the December rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“If our democracy is working the way it’s supposed to, and 90% of the American people agree on something, in the wake of a tragedy you’d think this would not be a heavy lift,” he told an impassioned crowd at the University of Hartford. “And yet, some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms. Think about that. They’re not just saying they’ll vote ‘no’ on ideas that almost all Americans support. They’re saying they’ll do everything they can to even prevent any votes on these provisions. They’re saying your opinion doesn’t matter. And that’s not right.”
In the Senate on Tuesday, Democrats blistered their Republican colleagues for threatening to use parliamentary tactics to obstruct legislation of this magnitude. Democrat Patrick Leahy, a gun owner and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said conservatives who sought to block debate “don’t deserve to be a Senator ” if they “don’t have the courage to stand up and vote yes or no.”
Indeed, a cadre of Republican Senators –most, if not all, of whom are likely to oppose the final bill — said they would not join a filibuster. “I think it deserves a vote up or down,” Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson told CBS News. For some Republicans, defying the President to take a controversial stand on the Second Amendment could be a political boon. Paul and Rubio, for example, are possible presidential candidates who have an incentive to shore up their right flank after backing comprehensive immigration reform. And some senators from blood-red states have few political imperatives other than to avoid a primary challenge.
But as some Republican strategists conceded, a filibuster would put other members in perilous territory to little obvious advantage. The provisions of the gun package most loathed by conservatives, including an assault-weapons ban and limits on high-capacity clips, look certain to fail. Senators can vote against the bill without resorting to a parliamentary maneuver that could irritate constituents sick of Washington gimmickry. And even if Democrats can garner the 51 votes required to move the bill out of the Senate, the legislation would have to navigate the turbulent waters of the Republican-controlled House.
Reid, who was among a group of Senators to meet Tuesday with relatives of the victims of the Newtown massacre, said inaction was not an option. “It would be a real slap in the face to the American people,” he said, “not to do something.”
Moving the bill toward the floor is a step toward fulfilling the promise the President laid out in the wake of the tragedy. At the end of his State of the Union in January, Obama delivered a stirring peroration, ticking off the sites of mass shootings and the names of their victims. “They deserve a vote,” he told the nation. Now it appears they will get one. There is still no certainty, however, that it will turn out the way he wanted.