Gun legislation’s chances improve
Prospects for a bipartisan deal to expand federal background checks for gun purchases are improving with the emergence of fresh Republican support, according to top Senate aides.
The possibility that after weeks of stalled negotiations senators might be on the cusp of a breakthrough comes as President Obama and his top surrogates will begin today their most aggressive push yet to rally Americans around his gun-control agenda.
Even though polls show that a universal background check system is supported by nine in 10 Americans, the president has been unable to translate popular support for the measures into legislative momentum on Capitol Hill.
But in a move that could bring along other Republicans as well as Democrats from conservative states who have not yet backed Obama’s agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, a key Democratic broker, has spent the past few days crafting the framework of a possible deal with Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Manchin and Toomey are developing a measure to require background checks for all gun purchases except sales between close family members and some hunters, which addresses concerns of some conservatives, according to the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the talks.
Spokesmen for Manchin and Toomey said only that the senators are talking to many of their colleagues about gun legislation and could not confirm details of their discussions.
Toomey is usually a reliable conservative vote for Senate Republicans, but he faces re-election in a Democratic-leaning state in 2016. A new player in the months-long gun talks, he is one of several GOP senators who have said that they would be receptive to supporting an expanded background-check program if a bipartisan deal were to emerge. As a former House lawmaker, Toomey remains close to House Republicans who represent the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, some of whom have said that they are open to striking bipartisan compromises on gun legislation in part because support for new gun laws is strong in those areas of the state.
Manchin, a moderate Democrat with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, has been eager to strike a deal on gun-control legislation since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December that left 20 children and six educators dead in Newtown, Conn. He has spent months negotiating with Sens. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, over details, but talks have stalled in recent weeks amid Coburn’s opposition to Schumer’s insistence on requiring gun owners to keep records of private gun sales. Despite the impasse, Schumer and Coburn have “kept the lines of communications open” in case a deal can be struck, one aide said.
With Coburn’s support waning and Kirk’s moderate blend of politics not seen as enough to bring along other Republican senators, Manchin has spent much of the two-week congressional recess seeking out other GOP supporters. Talks between Manchin and Toomey began in earnest last Wednesday, and the two have swapped proposed drafts, aides said. Any formal announcement of a deal won’t come until tomorrow or Wednesday, when the men return to Washington and sort out remaining details in person, aides said.
If Manchin succeeds in striking a deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, plans to move quickly to include that language in the bill, according to top aides. Those aides caution that Republicans could force the process to extend into next week by exercising various procedural rules. Reid’s current bill includes several of the leading Democratic proposals to curb gun violence, including a plan to expand background checks to all gun purchases, make gun trafficking a federal crime for the first time and bolster federal financing of school security programs.
Schumer said yesterday that Democrats are open to changing the bill’s language on background checks if Manchin can strike a deal with Republicans.
“Please let us go to the floor,” Schumer said Sunday on CBS News’s Face The Nation. “If we go to the floor, I’m still hopeful that what I call the sweet spot – background checks – can succeed. We’re working hard there.”
At the White House, top officials remain confident of brokering a deal on universal background checks, which is the most politically palatable of Obama’s gun-control proposals. The negotiations largely are being run out of Vice President Joe Biden’s office, with his chief of staff, Bruce Reed, playing a leading role. Administration officials privately concede that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are unlikely to pass the Senate when Reid holds up-or-down votes on the proposals as amendments to the main gun bill.
In hopes of increasing public support for passage of a gun bill, Obama today will fly to Connecticut – where emotions are still raw more than 100 days after the massacre – to deliver a speech on gun violence at the University of Hartford. A White House official said Obama would “speak, as he did at the State of the Union, of the obligations we have to children lost in Newtown and other victims of gun violence to act on these proposals.”
Tomorrow, Biden will hold a gun-control event at the White House with law enforcement leaders, while first lady Michelle Obama will return Wednesday to her home town of Chicago to speak about gun violence from the perspective of a mother. Over the past couple of years, Chicago has experienced a surge in gun violence.
But Republicans also are mounting a campaign to stop new gun legislation. At least 13 Senate Republicans, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Marco Rubio of Florida, are threatening to block any new gun legislation, with aides expecting more GOP senators to sign on to the filibuster threat when they return to Washington this week.