The gun control bill headed for the Senate floor bears little resemblance to the far-reaching proposal President Obama unveiled after the deadly shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has decided the federal assault weapons ban will not be a part of the base bill, and warned Tuesday an expansion of background checks to cover private sales might not make the cut either.
That is a significant blow to Obama, who recently touted that the Senate Judiciary Committee had advanced “three of the most important elements of my proposal to help reduce the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”
Obama’s three pillars have been reduced to one, with the bill facing an uncertain future in the GOP-led House.
Tuesday’s developments are a major win for the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which launched a massive lobbying effort soon after a Connecticut gunman killed 27 people, including 20 children, last December. Obama later called that day the worst of his presidency.
Reid said the assault weapons ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which faces staunch opposition from the gun rights group, could have sunk the entire legislative effort.
“Right now, her amendment, using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes. That’s not 60. I have to get something on the floor so we can have votes on that issue and the other issues that I’ve talked about. That’s what I’m going to try to do,” Reid told reporters Tuesday. Reid has previously opposed the assault weapons ban.
The majority leader indicated legislation crafted by Sen. Charles Schumer — and passed by the Judiciary Committee — to require background checks for private sales might not make it in the package unless the New York Democrat can find more Republican support.
Schumer had been negotiating a bipartisan deal with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), but those talks stalled earlier this month. Schumer earlier this year called background checks the “sweet spot” of gun control legislation.
“All these issues are important, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure we have a fair, sound debate on this. But we can’t have it unless I have something that I can put on the floor to proceed to it,” Reid said. “And I’m not going to try to put something on the floor that won’t succeed.”
Reid needs at least five Republican votes to begin a floor debate on gun legislation, and hopes to bring the bill to the Senate floor next month after the upcoming two-week recess.
Reid could bypass a filibuster on proceeding to gun legislation if he guarantees Republicans vote on two amendments of their choice, a reform the Senate enacted earlier this year to speed up floor action.
A spokesman for Schumer said the background-check legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee is a placeholder. Schumer and Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), a centrist Republican, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has an A rating from the NRA, are shopping to Republicans a proposal that would expand background checks to cover all gun sales. Kirk has an F rating from the NRA.
To entice Republican support, Schumer has agreed to a provision that would let rural gun sellers conduct background checks from home computers and would give military veterans an avenue to appeal findings by the Department of Veterans Affairs that they are mentally unfit to own a firearm, a Senate aide said.
The Schumer-Coburn talks fell apart over the thorny question of how to enforce background checks for private sales. Schumer says records must be kept of these checks to ensure they took place. But Coburn argued that requiring sellers to keep private records or store them with gun dealers would place too much of a burden on their Second Amendment rights.
A bill crafted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) aimed at cracking down on illegal trafficking of firearms has the best chance of winning at least a handful of Republican votes on the floor.
Sens. Kirk, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, have endorsed the gun trafficking legislation.
Gun control advocates said they were not surprised by Reid’s decision on the assault weapons ban.
“I think all of us knew all along that the gun violence bill would be the toughest lift,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I’m a little bit surprised on background checks. I don’t see why we couldn’t get to 60 votes on that.”
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said he’s optimistic about the background checks legislation.
“The assault weapons ban was always going to be the hardest piece of this package,” he added. “If keeping it out of the base bill is the NRA’s primary achievement in 2013, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’d be happy.”
Public polls show strong support for expanded background checks. A national Quinnipiac University poll from earlier this month showed 88 percent of voters supported background checks for all gun buyers.
Reid told Feinstein that he would give her a vote on the assault weapons ban, which includes curbs on high-capacity clips, and a second vote on a stand-alone amendment to ban high-capacity bullet magazines.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Tuesday suggested that Obama will continue to push for a federal assault weapons ban. During an interview on CNN’s “The Lead,” McDonough said, “So we’re going to work on this, we’re going to find the votes.”
Feinstein acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that the renewal of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, would not pass the upper chamber.
“I very much regret it,” Feinstein said of Reid’s decision to leave her legislation out of the base bill. “I tried my best.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has been a vocal ally of Feinstein’s in calling for the ban on high-capacity magazines, said he was “very disappointed” and took to Twitter on Tuesday to express his frustration.
“It was wrong to let #AssaultWeaponsBan expire in ‘04 & it’s wrong to sweep it under rug now,” he tweeted. “Military-style weapons don’t belong on streets.”
In an email to The Hill, Chris Cox, the NRA’s executive director for legislative action, sought to keep pressure on Congress.
“Congress should reject this so-called ‘assault weapons ban’ whether it is offered as a standalone bill or as an amendment,” he said.
This story was updated at 3:21 p.m. and 8:18 p.m.