The Senate voted to move forward on gun control Thursday, clearing the first of what is expected to be many 60-vote hurdles for the legislation.
In a 68-31 vote, the Senate approved a procedural motion that will allow debate on the Democratic measure to begin. Sixty votes were required for approval.
Sixteen Republicans voted in favor of the motion, while two Democrats — both from states President Obama lost in the 2012 election — voted against it. The two Democrats were Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), both of whom face reelection next year.
The vote comes nearly four months after 26 people, including 20 first-graders, were killed by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The crime shocked the nation and changed the debate on gun control in Washington. Relatives of the victims lobbied the Senate to allow the gun bill to come to the floor, aligning themselves with the president, who also had demanded the vote.
“Today let us decide that there will be no more Newtowns,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said ahead of the vote.
Just prior to the vote, relatives of the Newtown victims issued a joint release saying those who threatened to filibuster the bill should be "ashamed." Some of the victims' families watched the vote from the Senate gallery.
"The senators who have vowed to filibuster this bill should be ashamed of their attempt to silence efforts to prevent the next American tragedy," the group said in a statement. "Their staunch opposition to sensible gun reform is an affront to the 26 innocent children and educators who were murdered in Newtown. No one should have to experience the pain we have endured – commonsense gun laws will help spare others from the grief we live with every day."
The Senate bill would expand background checks on gun purchases, crack down on straw purchasers of guns and beef up security in schools.
Immediately after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated that the first amendment to be considered for the bill will be a deal on background checks worked out by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Toomey. Amendments to the bill are expected to need 60 votes for passage.
The background checks deal between the centrist Democrat, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the conservative Republican has given new momentum to the gun control legislation.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has described tougher background checks as the “sweet spot” for gun control — and likely the most meaningful provisions that could be approved by the Senate. Other measures backed by Obama, including a ban on “assault weapons” — certain semi-automatic weapons with military features — were not included in the bill.
The Manchin-Toomey language would require background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows and over the Internet, except for those between friends and acquaintances. The background checks would have to be accompanied by records proving to law enforcement officials they took place.
The initial vote on Thursday was on a motion to end debate on a motion to proceed to the gun control bill.
Reid said that he hoped that after Republicans were caught up on the Manchin-Toomey changes, he could get a unanimous consent agreement to immediately hold a vote on the motion to proceed, bypassing another 30 hours of debate.
“This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends and family,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday on the Senate floor. “The following offenses would now be federal crimes: An uncle giving his nephew a hunting rifle for Christmas, a niece giving her aunt a handgun for protection. ... These people I’m describing are not criminals.”
Thursday evening, the Senate approved a motion to proceed to the gun control bill by voice-vote.
The Senate can now officially start considering amendments to the bill, S. 649, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, which would expand background checks on gun purchases, crack down on straw purchasers of guns and beef up security in schools. The Senate is expected to work on the bill next week.
Thursday’s floor action sets up what will likely be weeks of heated debate and political wrangling over an issue that has failed to gain traction in Congress in the last decade.
Democrats will need at least five Republicans to vote in favor of a final bill to send it to the House, but only appear to have Toomey and Kirk on board so far.
They also cannot count on all of the upper chamber Democrats supporting a final bill.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday's vote was "an important milestone but an early milestone."
—This story was posted at 11:35 a.m. and updated at 7:09 p.m.