Reid plows ahead on gun control legislation

Democrats are confident they have the votes to bring gun control legislation to the Senate floor this week. But getting the votes to pass the bill later this month will be much harder.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not yet conducted a formal whip count, but at least eight Republican senators have said they will not attempt to block an effort to bring up the measure, a senior Democratic aide said.

Fifty-five senators caucus with the Democrats, and Reid acknowledged he might lose a few votes on his side of the aisle. During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Reid declined to make any bold predictions. Asked if he had the votes, Reid responded, “I don’t know.”

Behind the scenes, Reid and his lieutenants are convinced they have the 60 votes necessary to start the debate on the floor.

“He’s always been confident that he can get 60 votes,” the aide said.

The staffer noted statements by Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Dean Heller (Nev.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) indicating they would not support a filibuster of moving to the gun bill.

“It’s my understanding that amendments will be allowed to the bill, which is very important, since there are portions of the bill I do not support,” the centrist Collins told reporters on Tuesday. 

“My hope is that we can have a full and open debate with amendments. And if that occurs, then I will certainly vote to proceed to the bill,” she added.

President Obama called Republican and Democratic senators Tuesday afternoon to build support for the legislation, said a White House official. The president was expected to reach out to between a half-dozen and dozen senators.

Reid filed a motion Tuesday evening, setting up a vote Thursday to proceed to the legislation. The Senate is expected to begin voting on amendments next week. 

The Nevada Democrat on Tuesday twice invoked comments on gun control made by former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

“Republicans are planning to filibuster a 92 percent issue … something that involves the massacre of 20 first-grade children,” Scarborough said Tuesday. “Is anyone awake in my party on the Hill?”

“We’re going to find out [the answer to that question],” Reid said.

Polls show 9 in 10 voters support expanded background checks.  

Those numbers have emboldened gun control advocacy groups that say Democrats should not negotiate with Republicans to water down the portion of the legislation expanding background checks.

Instead, the groups say Democrats should hold their ground and force Republicans to vote on the language drafted by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), currently in the bill, which would dramatically expand background checks and require record-keeping to accompany them.

“If we can break the filibuster with the Schumer language, that changes the whole dynamic of the negotiations,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I say let’s go vote on it because I don’t think they can vote no on it. I think it’s a very, very difficult vote for people to vote no.”

Despite that optimism, many pundits believe comprehensive gun control is in major trouble. Last month, Democrats essentially threw in the towel on reinstating an assault weapons ban.

Schumer’s background-check language was included in the gun violence legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee as a placeholder to give Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) more time to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on background checks.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Tuesday said he would filibuster the bill reported by the Judiciary Committee because the background-check language did not receive a single Republican vote during the markup. But a wave of Republican defections in recent days shows that Reid can bring it up for debate despite McConnell’s objection.

Gun control groups predict McConnell will have a similarly difficult time holding his ranks to prevent the stronger version of expanded background checks from receiving an up-or-down vote.

“We want an up-or-down [vote] on the strongest bill we can get, and Schumer is that bill right now. We think that background-check bill is so popular it will pass,” Horwitz said.

Manchin, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, has been negotiating with Toomey in recent days to craft bipartisan language to expand background checks. They still had not reached an agreement as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re still working,” Manchin said.

Democrats, however, have begun to lose patience with the Republican negotiators.

“We think it’s time to move forward,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Obama has repeatedly pressed lawmakers by saying that the families of those shot in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., deserve votes on gun control measures. Obama made his case again Monday at a speech in nearby Hartford.

The president returned to Washington with some of the family members aboard Air Force One. The Connecticut families will lobby lawmakers in the days ahead to support the gun package.

Reid said he is not lobbying his Democratic colleagues, a handful of whom face tough reelection races in red states.

 “I have not leaned on any of my Democratic senators. I try never to do that,” Reid said. “I don’t get all the Democrats all the time, and that’s for sure.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he remains undecided about whether to support the motion to proceed.

“My primary focus is the state of Montana. They’re my employers. I’m just the employee. I’m the hired hand here. I care much more about Montana,” said Baucus, who is up for reelection in 2014 and voted against the Democratic budget last month.

Montana is one of the most pro-gun states in the country. One local group supporting gun owners’ rights estimated that families in the state own on average more than 20 firearms.

The senior Democratic aide said as many as 10 Republicans could vote for the motion to move to the gun bill, making Baucus’s vote less important.

“If we have 10 or more Republicans, it gives us some wiggle room,” the aide said.

— Bernie Becker, Jonathan Easley and Amie Parnes contributed to this report.