WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate’s top Democrat set the first showdown vote in Congress on President Barack Obama’s gun control drive for Thursday as a small but mounting number of Republicans appear willing to buck a conservative effort to prevent debate from even beginning.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Republicans anew Tuesday for trying to prevent a gun control debate. Conservatives say they will use procedural tactics to prevent the Senate from even debating firearms restrictions, meaning 60 out of 100 senators will need to vote for allowing a debate — though several Republicans are coming out against the obstruction effort.
The Senate machinations follow Obama’s remarks in Connecticut on Monday night on gun control, an issue catapulted into the national arena by the gruesome December slaying of 20 young children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Obama’s proposals — headlined by background checks for more gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — have hit stiff opposition from the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, and are struggling in Congress. A federal ban on assault weapons has gone nowhere, though some states are imposing their own.
Participants from both parties said a bipartisan deal was imminent on expanding required federal background checks to gun purchases conducted at gun shows and online. The two chief negotiators, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey, were expected to announce the compromise Wednesday.
Such a compromise would be likely to attract bipartisan support because both lawmakers are among their parties’ most conservative members.
Currently, background checks are required only for sales through licensed gun dealers.
The background checks, aimed at keeping firearms from criminals and certain other buyers, remain the cornerstone of Obama’s gun plan. Democrats have been buoyed by polls consistently showing more than 8 in 10 Americans support subjecting more buyers to background checks.
Obama was calling senators from both parties Tuesday to push for the gun bill, according to a White House official.
There are 53 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents in the Senate, though it remains unclear whether any moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states might support the conservative effort. In a hopeful sign for Democrats, at least five Republican senators have indicated a willingness to oppose the conservatives’ attempt to block debate with stalling tactics.
“The American people ought to see where everybody stands on this,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican who said he wants the debate to proceed.
A Senate vote to begin debating the guns package would mark a temporary victory for Obama and his allies. But some Republicans, though eager to avoid blocking debate on the plan, could well vote against the measure’s final passage. And with Republican senators facing resistance from their cohort in the Republican-run House of Representatives, the ultimate outcome seems shaky for the Democrats.
Reid stood on the Senate floor Tuesday before a poster-sized photo of a white picket fence with 26 slats, each bearing the name of one of the victims of the Newtown massacre.
“We have a responsibility to safeguard these little kids,” he said. “And unless we do something more than what’s the law today, we have failed.”
Another cause for concern among Democrats are some moderates in their own party who remain noncommittal and might oppose opening the gun debate, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who are seeking re-election next year.
Begich declined to directly state his position and said of Alaskans, “We like our guns.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican leader of the effort to block the gun debate, said that effort would prevent Obama from rushing the legislation through Congress “because he knows that as Americans begin to find out what is in the bill, they will oppose it.”
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the Senate bill puts “burdens on law abiding citizens exercising a constitutional right.” He said none of its provisions “would have done anything to prevent the horrible tragedy of Sandy Hook.”
Meanwhile, relatives of victims of the Connecticut massacre mounted a face-to-face lobbying effort in hopes of turning around enough U.S. lawmakers to gain a Senate floor vote on meaningful gun restrictions as Senate Democrats approach a key decision on gun legislation.
Obama urged Americans to demand action from Washington not forgot the tragedy of Newtown.
“If you want the people you send to Washington to have just an iota of the courage that the educators at Sandy Hook showed when danger arrived on their doorstep, then we’re all going to have to stand up,” Obama said.