Manchin-Toomey background-checks bill faces uphill path to secure 60 votes

Expanded background checks, a pillar of President Obama’s gun control agenda, is in jeopardy of falling short of the required 60 votes in the Senate.

Republican lawmakers who were considered possible “yes” votes have backed away. GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Dan Coats (Ind.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) have said they will vote against a compromise to expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows and over the Internet. 

Isakson, Chambliss, Corker and Alexander were the targets of a new television ad launched Friday by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns to pressure senators to vote for the background-check legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).  

Toomey on Monday said he doesn’t have the votes: “Not yet, but we’re working on it.”

The gun violence package received a major boost last week when Toomey, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), signed onto a bipartisan plan to expand background checks. If it were to fail on the Senate floor this week, it would deliver a serious blow to Obama’s second-term agenda. 

Senate Democratic leaders still believe they have a shot at rounding up 60 votes to overcome an expected Republican filibuster of the amendment to expand background checks, but they would need the lion’s share of the remaining undecided votes. 

“We always knew it was going to be close. There are enough undecided votes out there for it to pass,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been at the forefront of the gun violence debate, predicted expanded background checks would have enough support to pass — just barely. 

“It does, but it’s going to be close. It’s going to be 60, 61 votes,” he said.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, held nearly 80 events in the home states of wavering senators over the weekend to build pressure before the vote.  

Democratic leaders, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), are scrambling to limit defections from their ranks. 

Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) are potential votes against the deal. All five on Monday indicated they are still reviewing the proposal, and Baucus said he hadn’t heard from Obama or Vice President Biden.

Obama called Pryor last week and asked him to take a look at the Manchin-Toomey measure.

“It wasn’t a high-pressure sales job,” Pryor said on Monday.

Baucus’s Democratic colleague in Montana, Sen. Jon Tester, announced his support for the bill on Monday.

Democrats who are up for reelection next year include Baucus, Landrieu, Pryor and Begich. Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), another red-state Democrat up for reelection next year, supports it.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), a conservative Democrat, said her boss is still reviewing the legislation. But Democratic leaders are less concerned about him voting with Republicans. 

“I think at the end of the day, this is unlikely to fail because of Democrats,” said a Democratic aide. 

Schumer said in an ABC News interview Sunday: “We’re going to have the overwhelming majority of Democrats be for this.”

Democrats control 55 seats in the upper chamber. Four Republicans have so far pledged to support Manchin-Toomey: Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.), in addition to Toomey. 

Democrats need only one more Republican to vote to advance the proposal if they keep their caucus unified. But doing so appears unlikely. 

Begich and Pryor voted to support a Republican filibuster to block proceeding to the gun violence bill, signaling they are likely defectors.

The NRA has announced it will factor the vote in its legislative scorecard — lawmakers who vote “yes” could see their NRA rating drop. 

The undecided Republicans include Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Dean Heller (Nev.). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on Monday night said he is opposed while Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) will likely vote “no.”

The gun control debate remained in flux Monday evening as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) negotiated an agreement for considering amendments. 

In a floor speech on Monday, Reid noted that the Manchin-Toomey amendment has been backed by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the second-largest gun-rights groups in the nation. 

Several Republican swing voters are holding off on a decision about how to vote on Manchin-Toomey, to give Republican colleagues more time to craft an alternative. Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are drafting legislation to expand background checks, address the availability of firearms for the mentally ill and improve school safety.

But Democrats do not want to give on-the-fence Republicans the option of voting for a further watered-down version of expanded background checks that could give them political cover for opposing Manchin-Toomey. 

Corker said while he opposes the bipartisan plan touted by the Democratic leadership, he is open to other proposals. 

“Sen. Corker would not support Manchin-Toomey as written but is open to supporting amendments to achieve what he believes is the central issue: preventing violence by dangerous, mentally ill people,” said Laura Herzog, his spokeswoman.

Democrats also want to prevent a vote on GOP-sponsored legislation to allow concealed carry permits to apply across state lines.

This article was updated on Aprill 16 at 8:15 a.m. to update Sen. Jeff Flake's position. 

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