By Alexander Bolton - 04/17/13 12:36 AM EDT
Even though he doesn’t have the votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will move ahead on legislation Wednesday to expand background checks for gun sales.
Democrats are confident they will have a potent political issue if Republicans block the bipartisan measure, noting high public support in a variety of polls.
“We don’t know if we have 60 votes, but we don’t know that we don’t have 60,” a Democratic aide said. “It will be very close.”
Reid, however, has counted enough undecided senators to give him a shot, albeit one with long odds, at just clearing the 60-vote threshold.
Democrats say they were surprised that so few Republicans have joined Toomey, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). This has forced them to press vulnerable colleagues from rural states to support it.
“I think we’re surprised. I don’t think we thought it would be difficult,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who attributed the scant GOP support to a vigorous lobbying campaign by the NRA.
“After the announcement by Sen. Toomey and Sen. Manchin, the NRA decided to make this a cause,” he said. “When they say look we’re going to threaten to put a primary challenge against you if you support the bill, people pay attention to what they say.”
Democratic staffers said a vote on the Manchin-Toomey measure could take place as soon as Wednesday despite talk that it would be postponed until next week to give the sponsors more time to build support.
Manchin and Toomey floated the idea of exempting rural residents who do not live within convenient driving distance of a licensed gun dealer from having to comply with background checks, but the concession failed to win over Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), one of the few remaining Democratic holdouts.
“That impacts Alaska, but I think we’d still have problems,” Begich said. “It’s not going to seal the deal.”
Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy (D) and Richard Blumenthal (D) said they did not view the exemption for rural residents as weakening the bill.
Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), who along with Begich was one of only two Democrats to vote last week against proceeding on the gun violence package, expressed interest in alternative legislation being drafted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Pryor remains undecided on the Manchin-Toomey bill, though he is expected to vote no.
With Begich and Pryor considered likely to vote against it, Democratic leaders need to find seven Republican votes. That could be mission impossible.
So far, only four Republicans have committed to the proposal or are leaning toward voting yes: Toomey and Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.), who is not a certain yes.
At press time, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he will vote no. Heller had been undecided earlier on Tuesday.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has taken the lead with Manchin in trying to pass background-check legislation, said he expects 89-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who has missed recent votes because of illness, to show up if Democrats are only one vote short.
Some Democrats fear the bombing in Boston on Monday could distract the public’s attention from the Senate debate on gun control.
“It is an issue that’s going to be on the front burner for a while, so it does divide focus that could act to take us away from the gun issue,” Cardin said.
Reid on Tuesday vehemently denied that Democrats had lost momentum.
“I think there’s significant momentum,” he said. “You should have heard our caucus today. It was as moving as any caucus I’ve been to. Congresswoman Giffords was there and presented to us. Joe Manchin gave a remarkably moving, tearful presentation.”
Democratic leaders invited former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords (D), who was shot in the head in an attack two years ago, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, to a lunch meeting to shore up support within their ranks for expanded background checks.
Kelly warned at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor earlier in the day that lawmakers who oppose the Manchin-Toomey proposal could face political consequences. He threatened to back a challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), with whom he and his wife have had a close relationship, if Flake opposes the amendment.
“You know, friendship is one thing,” Kelly said. “Saving people’s lives, especially first-graders, is another thing.”
Flake is not up for reelection until 2018, and it’s uncertain that voting against a controversial gun control measure would pose much of a liability in a GOP primary.
Democrats think they will have a good issue to campaign on in 2014 if Republicans block expanded background checks, which a majority of the public supports.
“We certainly feel we have the wind at our back. The American people agree with us. This isn’t a 51-49 deal,” Reid said, claiming “90 percent of the American people” support the reform.
President Obama and Vice President Biden have not engaged in much of an arm-twisting campaign to round up votes, perhaps fearful the president’s imprimatur could alienate support from rural and conservative-leaning states.
Begich and Pryor said Obama called them last week but they have not heard from Biden.
“It wasn’t a high-pressure sales job,” Pryor said Monday, describing his conversation with Obama.
Manchin said the administration has kept a respectful distance from the background-check proposal.
“They made it clear it’s not their bill,” he said.
Ben Geman contributed.