President Barack Obama’s bid to enact even a scaled-back version of his gun-safety agenda needs support from many of the 16 Senate Republicans who showed they’re at least willing to debate it.
He also must hold onto almost all of the 52 Democrats and independents who joined yesterday’s 68-31 vote to advance the measure for debate.
The White House already may be losing Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who voted yes for debate though said in an interview later that he has trouble with the legislation.
“I oppose the bill, I just cannot support it,” said Baucus of Montana, who faces re-election in 2014. “I’m just not going to block debate on it.”
Several Republicans said they voted yes for the same reason -- to allow the measure to advance -- though they probably won’t back it in a final vote.
“It’s a debate we ought to have,” said Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “I don’t think I am going to support the legislation.”
The Senate agreed yesterday to move to debate on the legislation, S. 649, which would expand background checks of gun purchasers, increase funding for school safety and set new penalties for gun trafficking.
The bill, should it clear the Senate, faces an uncertain fate in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he won’t make a “blanket” commitment to bring a gun measure to the floor.
The debate over gun control was reignited by the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 children and six school employees. Just weeks later, Obama proposed a package of measures to curb gun violence that included renewing a ban on assault weapons and setting size limits for ammunition magazines.
Those proposals were dropped from the Senate bill amid opposition from the National Rifle Association. The president campaigned this week to preserve momentum for what’s left of the measure, bringing families of Newtown victims to Washington on Air Force One to ask senators to support it.
Baucus was one of the Democrats who met with Newtown victims’ relatives. He called it a “heart wrenching and emotional meeting” that, nevertheless, didn’t change his position on the legislation.
Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, who said he met twice with the Newtown families, voted yesterday to block consideration of the measure.
“The base bill, I still had problems with it,” Begich said.
Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas also voted against moving forward with the bill.
Begich and Pryor -- the only 2 Democrats to oppose bringing the measure up for debate -- are up for re-election next year.
The 16 Republican votes to advance the bill signaled that at least some in the party will support the legislation. Still, one of those Republicans, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said he won’t back the measure.
A number of Republicans think that voting to allow debate “gives them the freedom to vote against the bill,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
“I think it’s at the least embarrassing, and more than that, a bit of a problem, that Democrats can’t get every Democrat,” Rothenberg said. “It becomes easier for Republicans to just to say ‘look at Pryor or Begich.’”
Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is up for re-election next year in a state that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in November, wouldn’t say whether she supports the legislation.
“I am going to be a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Landrieu said. The constitutional amendment protects Americans’ right to bear arms.
The political concerns of these Democrats are weighing on party members heading into next week’s vote.
“This is that big issue that the nation faces that you need to stand up and vote on,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who unsuccessfully sought to include an assault-weapon ban in the legislation. “It always surprises me when some people, the first thing they think of is getting re-elected.”
Democratic defections may extend beyond those facing re-election. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a freshman lawmaker, said she hasn’t “formed any opinions” on the background-check compromise.
‘Way of Life’
North Dakota has a strong gun culture, Heitkamp said. “You need to understand in our part of the country, this isn’t an issue, this is a way of life, this is how people feel,” she said.
Yesterday’s bipartisan vote followed a compromise by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, to require background checks for gun sales over the Internet and between private parties at gun shows.
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun-owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1.
The Manchin-Toomey proposal will be offered as the first amendment to the Senate bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said debate and votes may stretch into the week of April 22.
The push for legislation by the Newtown families and other groups supporting it has been an offsetting force to the influence of the NRA, the nation’s biggest gun lobby.
Nine of the Republicans voting to move to debate on the bill received at least an A-minus rating from Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights group based in Springfield, Virginia.
“The political landscape in America on gun safety is changing before our eyes,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat. “Four months ago gun safety and gun violence were thought to be politically untouchable in America.”
Republicans including John McCain of Arizona will be crucial to the success of the legislation. In an interview yesterday, he stopped short of endorsing the legislation.
“I’m certainly favorably disposed but I’ve got to look at all the details,” he said. “The Internet aspect of the issue is something I have concerns about.”
Another Republican being pressed on the issue is Susan Collins of Maine, who is sponsoring a separate bill to set penalties for firearms trafficking. She said the compromise between Manchin and Toomey addressed many of her concerns about the legislation.
“It takes care of many of the problems that are in the underlying bill,” she said. “It’s certainly a positive development.”
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York predicted a challenge to gain votes in the coming days.
“Make no mistake about it; we have a tough fight” to pass the gun measure, Schumer said. “The NRA will try and throw all kinds of amendments at us.”
-- Editors: Laurie Asseo, Jodi Schneider