By Jordy Yager and Jonathan Easley - 04/11/13 12:17 AM EDT
Gun control legislation received a surprising jolt of momentum on Wednesday when a conservative Republican unveiled a bipartisan proposal on background checks.
President Obama hailed the agreement, crafted by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), as a sign of “welcome and significant bipartisan progress.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) quickly denounced the bill.
Toomey’s decision represented a dramatic step for gun control, especially because he has an A rating from the NRA and formerly headed the conservative Club for Growth. It also revived the issue, which had lost considerable steam over the last month.
To pass a background-check bill, however, Democrats will need others in the Senate GOP to follow Toomey’s lead. That hasn’t happened yet.
“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) told The Hill following the chamber’s GOP Steering Committee lunch on Wednesday. Republicans had planned to discuss immigration, but guns dominated the strategy session.
Several GOP lawmakers remain skeptical that Toomey’s endorsement would bring more votes.
“People that originally wanted to vote for gun legislation, he gives a great deal of prestige to them,” Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “For people that aren’t for any more background checks or any more infringement on the Second Amendment, it doesn’t make any difference.”
For the moment, the only Senate Republican who is sure to vote for Manchin-Toomey is Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), who has an F rating from the NRA.
Toomey said his new bill with Manchin does not represent “gun control,” adding he has long been a supporter of gun rights and owns a firearm.
Yet, he indicated he was concerned that whole legislative effort was in jeopardy, so he decided to enter into discussions with Manchin, a centrist Democrat who also has an A rating from the NRA.
Sen. Charles Schumer has been working closely with Manchin to find a GOP co-sponsor, but the New York Democrat did not attend Wednesday’s packed press conference. Various media accounts reported that Toomey didn’t want Schumer there. Schumer’s office declined to comment.
The bipartisan accord failed to win over Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who was in talks with Schumer on background checks before he backed away earlier this year.
“The Manchin-Toomey proposal is a good faith, but unworkable plan,” Coburn said in a statement. He cited new taxes, “unreasonable burdens on law-abiding citizens,” a “government takeover of gun shows” and its record-keeping requirement as reasons he opposed the bill.
Coburn said he intended to offer his own amendment “based on many previously agreed to bipartisan reforms gun control advocates abandoned.”
Some see politics at play for Toomey, who is up for reelection in 2016 in a state that hasn’t supported a GOP president since 1988.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters that Toomey’s support gives other Republicans political cover to back the bill. Perhaps just as importantly, it could help Durbin convince red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014 to vote “yes.”
Toomey says he has talked to senators on both sides of the aisle about his new proposal, but he declined to speak for them. He did say his plan has attracted preliminary support from House Republicans.
“I know there are a substantial number of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach,” said Toomey, a former House member. “There are definitely Republicans in the House that support this.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday they would be joining forces for the House version of the background-check bill.
Multiple Republicans in the Pennsylvania delegation voiced support for the measure.
“I applaud Sen. Pat Toomey for bringing some Pennsylvania commonsense to the issue of background checks for firearm purchases,” centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said.
King said he had spoken with a number of GOP colleagues — mainly from the Northeast — who are open to the bill.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declined comment and said he had not spoken to Toomey.
“Pat was very popular over here,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “He was head of the [Republican Study Committee], did a lot of activity over the years with Club for Growth, so if it’s something he can sign on to, people are going to look at it and say, ‘Lets at least take a look.’”
Cole, a deputy whip, called the proposal a “step in the right direction,” but said he didn’t know if he would ultimately support it.
Republicans in both chambers will feel pressure from gun rights groups. The NRA is lobbying against the Manchin-Toomey proposal, and Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham warned lawmakers not to back the legislation.
“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.”
The deal was cheered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which pulled television ads in Pennsylvania that were critical of Toomey.
The Manchin-Toomey deal 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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed a motion to move forward on a gun control bill earlier this week, setting up a preliminary Thursday vote on whether to proceed with votes on amendments coming as early as next week. The package includes expanded requirements for background checks, stiffer penalties for straw purchasing guns, and funding for school safety initiatives. The motion to proceed is expected to pass.
The Manchin-Toomey proposal is expected take the place of background-check language written by Schumer. But it’s unclear whether Reid plans to substitute the language before the package comes to the floor or schedule a vote to amend it once the floor debate begins.
— Russell Berman and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.