Senate Democrats were desperately working Tuesday to keep alive the modest bipartisan legislation to expand mandatory background checks to some gun sales, claiming momentum in public and offering new concessions to skeptical senators in private.
The epic struggle to pass even a minimal tightening of gun laws — a scaled-back version of the universal checks that 90 percent of Americans support — is yet another testament to the power of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, which opposes the compromise.The deal announced last Wednesday by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) to expand background checks to gun shows and Internet sales was supposed to be the breakthrough that secured 60 votes for the cause. It didn’t happen. Democrats conceded Tuesday that they lacked the necessary votes to overcome a filibuster and were seeking to win over fence-sitting senators by considering exemptions.
“Now, am I saying it’s all over with, done, we got the votes? No,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “But we certainly feel we have the wind at our back.”
Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) confirmed Tuesday that Manchin, Toomey and supporters of their bill are open to carving out an exemption that permits gun dealers who live more than a hundred miles from a firearm licensee to sell a firearm without conducting a background check on the buyer. The aim is to win senators from states like Alaska and North Dakota, which have large rural constituencies.
“We’re open to senators who want to seek changes to the compromise. This Manchin-Toomey bill is not set in stone,” said Murphy. “We’re going to work over the coming hours and days to try to get people to ‘Yes.’ We’re not going to let people off the hook. If they have problems with this bill then we’re going to make it better to get them over the line.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said he doesn’t expect “any weakening of the bill.”
The changes aren’t final and haven’t won over newly skittish senators — yet. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he remains “favorably inclined” but undecided, while other GOP senators affirmed when asked that they oppose Manchin-Toomey. Republicans haven’t been eager to wade into the background check debate but have discussed their opposition in broad Second Amendment terms.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are also fighting off a raft of possible poison pill amendments Republicans may bring up which would turn the legislation into a vehicle to weaken gun laws. The main one is a NRA-backed proposal to guarantee that a person who obtains a concealed carry license in one state may carry his or her gun in all states.
“Concealed carry is my greatest worry because it would upend law enforcement’s job in New York, and we’re going to have to fight that tooth and nail,” Schumer said. “The good news there is that instead of needing 60 votes we need 41 [to block it].”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told TPM on Tuesday afternoon that no deal had yet been struck on which amendments would be considered.
From floor speeches about Newtown, Conn., shooting victims to interviews with reporters in the Capitol to inviting former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly to their weekly meeting, Democrats were pulling out all the stops to portray momentum behind their cause.
“We’re all grownups. This is a moderate measure. This would save lives,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “Today if you’re a felon you can buy a firearm at a gun show. If you’re a terrorist you can buy a firearm.”