Senate to vote on moving forward with gun control measure today

The Senate will vote Thursday to move forward on gun control legislation, an action expected to set off weeks of debate on the floor.

Democrats are confident they have the 60 votes they need to proceed to a debate after a number of Republicans said they would not support a filibuster backed by conservatives.

Some red-state Democrats up for reelection next year may oppose the motion, scheduled for a vote at 11 a.m., but it is expected the vote will succeed. 

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Prospects for clearing the bill from the Senate floor were boosted by a deal on background checks to gun purchases announced Wednesday by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The deal gave new momentum to gun control legislation, which had seemed to be in trouble. Supporters have described the background checks provisions as the sweet spot of a gun control bill.

Toomey on Thursday acknowledged there is a wide variety of opinion on the issue within the GOP, and said it was uncertain whether the bill would move through the Senate.

"I think we’ve got a few voting hurdles, and I don’t know how they are going to turn out," Toomey said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." 

"I think we will be able to get started on the underlying bill with the vote today, but how the amendments play out I think it’s just too early to know," he said.

Democrats will need to pull at least five Republican senators to their side if the bill is to make it through the upper chamber, and that task appears difficult even if Toomey and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a pro-gun control Republican, are on board.

The 14 Republican senators who vowed to filibuster the bill are likely to remain in opposition. Among them are Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), who said Wednesday that Democratic efforts to push gun control would cost them the Senate in 2014, and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), who said on the floor that background check measures would lead to confiscation. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, has also vowed to filibuster.

A handful of GOP senators told The Hill on Wednesday that the Manchin-Toomey agreement didn’t change the debate at all.

“While all of us like and respect Sen. Toomey, there wasn’t an outpouring of support for his amendment,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voiced similar comments, while Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — who Democrats had courted on background checks — announced his unequivocal opposition.

Republicans are also likely to face sustained pressure from pro-gun rights groups.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) said Wednesday it would score senators on the Manchin-Toomey deal and the final cloture vote on the Senate's gun bill.

In a letter to senators, NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox says the nation's top gun owners' organization is "unequivocally opposed" to the Senate bill.

"In addition, the NRA will oppose any amendments offered to S. 649 that restrict fundamental Second Amendment freedoms; including, but not limited to, proposals that would ban commonly and lawfully owned firearms and magazines or criminalize the private transfer of firearms through an expansion of background checks," Cox writes. "This includes the misguided 'compromise' proposal drafted by Senators Joe Manchin, Pat Toomey and Chuck Schumer."

The scoring threat echoed a similar declaration earlier in the day from Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham.

Needham warned lawmakers in a statement not to follow Toomey’s lead.

“We expect this type of deal making from Joe Manchin and also from Chuck Schumer, who supports the ‘universal registration’ of firearms,” Needham said. “However, we expect more from Pat Toomey and, more importantly, so do his constituents. To be clear, lawmakers will not get a pass on any bill that infringes on the constitutional rights of the American people.”

Even if the Senate clears legislation, it would face an uncertain path in the House.

Toomey said a “substantial number” of House Republicans supported his proposal, and Reps. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday they would offer similar House legislation.

The Senate bill could also be pared back during the Senate debate as different members offer amendments.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced on Wednesday that they reached an agreement with the NRA on a modified version of a proposal to crack down on gun traffickers and straw purchasers of firearms. Grassley voted for a version of that bill in committee, but hasn’t said whether he’d support it in the final package.

Coburn said Wednesday he’d offer a substitute amendment to the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill that is “based on many previously agreed to bipartisan reforms gun control advocates abandoned.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) assault weapons ban is likely going nowhere, as Reid has said he doubts it could muster 40 votes in the Senate.

Thursday's vote is technically a vote on a motion to end debate on the motion to proceed to the gun control legislation. That means the successful vote would trigger another vote on the actual motion to proceed to the bill. 

But if the initial vote wins at least 60 votes of support, it is possible the Senate could unanimously agree to proceed without a second roll call. 

If some opponents demand the second procedural vote, it could force the Senate to vote again on Friday.

-- Justin Sink contributed to this report.

This story was last updated at 10:28 a.m.