Gun Bill’s Prospects Dim as Senate Struggles with Background Checks

A bipartisan deal to expand background checks is struggling to muster the 60 votes required to clear the Senate.

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Gary Cameron / Reuters

Senator Pat Toomey and Senator Joe Manchin hold a news conference on firearms background checks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2013.

A bipartisan deal to expand background checks on gun sales, the cornerstone of the sweeping gun-control package under consideration in the Senate, remains short of the votes required for passage with a showdown looming Wednesday afternoon.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, the architects of the background-check proposal, spearheaded an aggressive campaign Tuesday to muster the 60 votes required for the provision to survive the Senate. But the bill’s prospects have waned early this week as several Republicans announced they would oppose it, while a passel of moderate Democrats who represent conservative states or are up for re-election in 2014 declined to commit to the measure.

To round up the rest of the votes, the deal’s supporters are entertaining the possibility of a tweak that would exempt rural gun-buyers from background-check requirements, a move designed to mollify holdout senators from sparsely populated states. But there was little indication that this concession alone would be enough to nudge the legislation over the line.

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“We’re not there today,” admits Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, one of the senators leading the effort to pass the most significant gun reforms in a generation. “We’re going to spend this week open to people who want to get to yes. Certainly the rural issue is on the table right now, but we’ll be open to others.”

As written, the compromise crafted by Manchin and Toomey would broaden the background-check requirement on firearm purchases to include all commercial sales, including at gun shows and in online transactions. (Current law requires such checks only for sales by licensed dealers.) It is being introduced as an amendment to the underlying gun bill offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which contains a much stiffer background check standard.

The amendment would not require background checks on private gun transfers — an exception that frustrates gun-control advocates. And some say they are reluctant to water down an already diluted compromise even further in an attempt to secure support for a measure that some 90% of voters support. “I don’t foresee any changes in the immediate future. I think every one of us wants to make sure we have a vote,” says Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. “I don’t foresee any weakening of the bill.”

Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber on Tuesday afternoon, Reid claimed “momentum” was on the Democrats’ side. “Am I saying it’s all over with, done, we’ve got the votes? No. But we certainly feel we have the wind at our back,” Reid said. “The American people agree with us.”

(MORE: Bipartisan Background-Check Deal May Boost Gun Bill’s Chances)

But the momentum was hard to detect. With 53 Democratic seats, plus two independent senators who caucus with the majority, supporters of the proposal will need to garner the support of several Republicans to carry it past the 60-vote threshold required to clear Senate procedural hurdles— and that’s if their own ranks stay united. Several Democrats from conservative states—Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—remained noncommittal Tuesday. Four of the five are up for re-election in 2014.

“This isn’t an easy vote politically. I think we know what’s at stake here,” Dick Durbin, the Democrats’ Senate Whip, told a throng of reporters. “This is the first meaningful gun safety legislation we’ve taken up since I was elected to this body 16 years ago.” So far just three Republicans—Toomey, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine—have committed to supporting the measure. Arizona’s John McCain has also said he is open to doing so.

With an emotional vote looming, gun-control advocates have ramped up a vigorous lobbying push. Gabrielle Giffords, the former representative from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 by a deranged constituent wielding a high-capacity Glock, joined the Democrats’ caucus lunch on Tuesday, along with her husband Mark Kelly, whom observers said delivered an impassioned call to action. At the dedication of a meeting room in the Capitol named for Gabriel Zimmerman, a Giffords aide killed in the 2011 Tucson massacre, Kelly touted the background-check compromise, while Vice President Joe Biden invoked the terrorist attack Monday in Boston. Yet there was no indication that these emotional appeals would be enough to change the math. Up on the podium, Jeff Flake, a Republican Senator and a friend of Giffords’ from Arizona, gave a warm tribute to Zimmerman— yet also announced on Facebook that he would oppose the Toomey-Manchin deal, arguing it “simply goes too far.”

(MORE: Gun Control: What Really Matters)

Manchin gave a “moving, tearful presentation” to fellow Democrats on Tuesday, Reid said. Toomey was scrambling to drum up support on the Republican side, pitching the deal at a private Republican policy lunch on Tuesday, according to a Republican Senate aide, and calling colleagues to address their concerns. “If people are sincere about wanting to vote for something, then they should spend the next day or so working with Joe and Pat to try to get to a reasonable compromise,” Murphy says, noting that the deal’s architects were open to the rural exemption, in particular, as a way to assuage a few select senators. “So long as we carve out a limited exemption for people in truly rural areas, I think it’s something that a lot of us can live with.”

But even aides to senators who support the amendment expressed skepticism that the rural exemption would be enough to sway members from vast rural states. Begich and Heitkamp, two of the targets of the potential rural background-check exemption, hustled past reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, evading questions as they ducked into elevators or private corridors.

On a day when death was everywhere in the Capitol—the flags over the dome flying at half-staff, the moments of silence for the fallen, the pulled political punches, the public homage paid to victims in Boston and Blacksburg and Tucson—there was still no indication that the Senate could pull off a deal that might prevent more bloodshed.

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