Twenty-one Democratic seats are being contested in the 2014 elections -- many of them in red states where the National Rifle Association, which opposes background checks, is a force to be reckoned with. Among them are Sens. Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Max Baucus (MT), who aren't prepared to support gun checks.
Politically, Democratic leaders are in a lose-lose predicament. If they somehow squeeze background checks through the Senate (it'll still have to pass the House), their vulnerable members will face the wrath of the NRA. If the legislation fails, leaders will anger and demoralize their liberal base, which is demanding meaningful action on guns.
Restrictions on assault weapons ban and high-capacity ammunition clips may receive separate votes but have been removed from the base bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has committed to bringing gun legislation to the floor but remains circumspect on background checks, although he insists the policy must be included in order for the reforms to be effective.
Reid can use a procedural option and open debate on the bill with 50 votes, thanks to a temporary provision in the bipartisan rules change enacted in January. That would guarantee Republicans two amendments, which they'll likely use to poison the legislation, but Democrats could defeat those amendments with 41 votes -- not a hard task. But even then, they'll need 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a final up-or-down vote on the legislation. And that's why Republicans are so confidently forecasting failure for the bill.
"I think that legislation is going nowhere," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told CNN on Sunday.
The same day on NBC, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called the idea of mandatory background checks for gun purchases "a bridge too far" -- even as nine in 10 Americans say they support it.
One back door for Democrats would be to make their background checks bill palatable to the NRA, either by watering it down or making concessions elsewhere. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has reportedly been in talks with the group but hasn't announced any progress.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a strong supporter of gun reforms, hinted that a passable background checks proposal may need to satisfy critics of gun control.
"I called it 'the sweet spot' because it would do a whole lot of good and have a good chance of passing," Schumer told NBC Sunday. "I'm working very hard with both Democrats and Republicans, pro-NRA and anti-NRA people, to come up with a background check that will be acceptable to 60 senators and be very strong and get the job done. It's very hard and we're working hard and I'm very hopeful that we can get this passed."
President Obama isn't about to go down without a fight. Last week he made an impassioned plea for congressional action on gun violence, and he's continuing that push in Denver this Wednesday. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is waging a $12 million ad blitz pushing for background checks in targeted states. Whether or not their efforts will sway fence-sitting senators remains to be seen. For the time being, it has had little perceptible impact other than swelling the ranks of Republicans vowing to filibuster the legislation.