Democrats brace for failure of expanded background checks

Democratic leaders are mulling their next steps as they brace for the Senate to defeat a bipartisan amendment to expand background checks for gun sales.

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the lead sponsor of the amendment, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), acknowledged Wednesday that he is short the votes.

“We need more votes,” he told reporters, hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote on it.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored the amendment, told National Review on Wednesday morning that the amendment lacked the 60 votes it needs to pass.

The Manchin-Toomey proposal would amend language in the gun-violence package to expand background checks.

It would expand background checks to cover all firearms sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It would require licensed gun dealers to conduct the checks and keep records of those transactions. It exempts sales and transfers between friends and acquaintances outside of a commercial or online venue.

The legislation currently includes placeholder language that does not exempt transactions between friends and acquaintances. It was adopted by a party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee.

The defeat of Manchin-Toomey means the gun bill won’t be able to pass unless the Democratic placeholder language on background checks is removed. Manchin and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have said their support of the broader bill would hinge on the adoption of Manchin-Toomey.

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the fourth-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said Reid is working on Plan B.

“I think the leader is trying to figure that out right now. It’s hugely disappointing that something that 90 percent of the public wants won’t get 60 votes. The country is in a different place,” said Murray.

Reid is expected to put out a statement after the vote, which is scheduled to begin shortly after 4 p.m.

The Manchin-Toomey proposal suffered another blow Wednesday morning when Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), one of the few remaining undecided Republicans, announced she would vote "no."

"While steps must be taken to improve the existing background check system, I will not support the Manchin-Toomey legislation, which I believe would place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales," Ayotte said in a statement.

Manchin criticized the NRA on Wednesday morning for distorting the effect of his amendment and challenged his colleagues to stand up to the special-interest group.

“I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics,” Manchin said. “I think there is a time in our life, a defining time in public service, a time when you have the ability to stand, when you know the facts are on your side and walk into the lion’s den and look that lion in the eye and tell that lion, listen, not today.”

A Senate Democratic aide said Democrats are unlikely to rally behind an alternative proposal to expand background checks.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proposed legislation that would allow potential gun buyers to conduct background checks on themselves and present certification to sellers. Coburn said his plan would give gun owners comfort that they are not selling firearms to criminals or the mentally ill.

But Democrats and gun control advocates say the Coburn proposal is too weak because it would not require record keeping to help law enforcement prosecute illegal sales and transfers.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said only the Manchin-Toomey proposal would keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

"I believe people should be able to own guns, but the criminals shouldn’t be able to own guns," he said. "If you oppose the Manchin-Toomey amendment, you cannot say with a straight face that you oppose criminals getting guns."

Democrats say they are content to take the issue of background checks into the 2014 midterm election.

“We’ll have an issue where 90 percent of the public is with us,” said a senior aide.