By Jordy Yager, Mike Lillis and Erik Wasson - 01/23/13 01:26 AM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday pledged to hold an open amendment vote on a major gun reform bill — a move that could trim the scope of the expansive measures being sought by liberal Democrats and gun-control groups.
The decision could significantly increase a bill’s chances of passage, granting centrist senators on both sides of the aisle more leeway to vote safely on specific aspects of gun control that could otherwise haunt them at the polls in 2014.
“This is an issue that we are not going to run from. It is an issue we need to talk about,” Reid said.
The open amendment process also holds the potential to weaken the bill by allowing Republicans to put forward amendments tempering the measure’s strong language and broad reach.
“What I am hopeful we can do is we can get a bill reported out of the Judiciary Committee. It may not be everything that everyone wants. I am hopeful it will have some stuff in there that’s really important. And then I expect to have a free amendment process on the floor,” Reid said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to hold the chamber’s first hearings on the issue next week, when the breadth of the measure will begin to be ironed out.
Leahy, representing a significant number of gun owners in rural Vermont, has a mixed record on gun reform, but indicated last week that he wants to focus his examination on the criminal background check system and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
While Obama and some top Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) are in favor of a comprehensive package — including an assault-weapons ban, limitations on magazine size and universal background checks — others, such as Reid, have narrowed their support to only certain aspects of the push.
Regardless of whether the Judiciary panel passes a comprehensive package or a scaled-down version, the open amendment process would allow red-state Democrats to go on the record opposing significant reforms like the assault-weapons ban for the sake of their political prospects.
But gun reformers want a larger package to clear the committee and hit the Senate floor. One gun-control advocate close to the issue, who did not want to be named, said a more ambitious bill is preferred for the simple reason that “it’s harder to take things out” than leave them in.
The open amendment process would allow for any senator to offer an amendment to the gun reform bill and hold a vote on it.
Over the past two decades, members of the Senate’s minority party have criticized the majority for preventing them from introducing amendments.
Traditionally, the majority will limit the amendment process in an attempt to protect their members from having to cast votes on tough issues that could hurt them.
Reid has been stuck in a tricky position on gun legislation, which the Obama administration has strongly advocated since last month’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children.
The issue of gun reform has not faded from headlines in the month since the Connecticut shooting.
On Tuesday, at least three people were shot at a Texas community college near Houston after a gunman opened fire following a reported altercation.
Reid said on Tuesday that he called Leahy last week to tell him that he was impressed with the new Senate pro tempore’s speech at Georgetown University’s Law Center earlier this month. Reid called the address “forward-leaning.”
Leahy, who is a gun owner, said during that speech that he wanted to expand background checks by eliminating the gun-show “loophole” and limit high-capacity magazines to fewer bullets.
Leahy is not the only senator examining ways to prevent gun violence.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, announced Tuesday that he’ll soon stage a hearing on methods to improve mental healthcare services, with a focus on prevention and early intervention.
A number of the mass shootings in recent years have been carried out by young men suffering from acute mental illness. Obama has emphasized that mental-health treatments must be a part of any violence-prevention strategy.
Harkin’s hearing is scheduled for Thursday, the same day Feinstein is expected to release her assault-weapons ban legislation. But lawmakers in the House are also actively working to shape their own version of the gun-reform legislation.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), the House’s staunchest gun-control advocate and a member of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, is likely to be alongside Feinstein on Thursday.
The task force met with the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) top lobbyist, Chris Cox, on Tuesday and began to find some common ground, according to McCarthy.
“Obviously, they’re not going to support us on some issues,” she told The Hill. “But they’re going to be working with us on the background checks and bullying. They’re willing to work with us on expanding the mental health [aspects]. “
McCarthy said the NRA was not supporting a universal background check system, but that there was room for negotiation.
“They’re not for universal, but we’re not giving up on that one,” said McCarthy. “We can probably make some accommodations. I think they’re concerned about when a father wants to pass down a gun. I think we can work on that.”
McCarthy said the congressional task force will meet with the White House gun violence task force and plans to unveil its specific proposals for gun-reform legislation later this week at the Democrat retreat.
“I happen to think we should have one package,” said McCarthy, who vowed to fight for including an assault-weapons ban in the bill.