By Alexander Bolton - 04/18/13 12:29 AM EDT
The Senate delivered a devastating blow to President Obama’s agenda Wednesday by defeating a bipartisan proposal that would have expanded background checks on gun sales.
It failed by a vote of 54-46, short of the necessary 60. A handful of Democrats voted against it and only four Republicans supported the measure backed by the White House.
The vote effectively halted gun control in the upper chamber.
Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Senate
Democracy for America, a liberal group, called the Democratic defectors “spineless.”
GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) voted yes.
The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Toomey, captured political momentum last week, but it faded over the last several days.
The bill would have expanded checks to cover all firearm sales at gun shows and over the Internet, with exemptions for sales between friends and acquaintances outside of commercial venues.
Democrats felt confident the compromise could pass once Toomey, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), signed on. They were caught off guard when the NRA’s vigorous lobbying campaign trumped Toomey’s support. The gun lobby warned lawmakers that the Manchin-Toomey bill would be a factor in its lawmaker ratings.
What appeared to be a likely victory for the president was defeated by the Senate as jittery Democrats facing tough reelections next year joined nearly the entire Republican conference.
The NRA released a statement immediately after the vote that said the measure would have “criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens.”
After the vote, a defiant Obama appeared in the White House Rose Garden with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Vice President Biden and family members of victims in last year’s Newtown, Conn., shooting rampage, which killed 20 children.
A visibly irritated Obama ripped the GOP and groups that opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment, saying they “willfully lied” about the contents of the background-check bill. He added that the vote represented a “pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Obama vowed to keep up the fight for gun control, calling for proponents to turn the heat up on Congress: “Sooner or later we are going to get this right.”
Now Democratic leaders, who had deemed background checks the “sweet spot” of gun control, will have to overhaul the pending gun control bill to give it a chance of passing the Senate in diminished form. It remains to be seen if a gun bill will pass the GOP-led House.
The failure of Manchin-Toomey means the broader bill still includes Democratic language passed by the Judiciary Committee to establish universal background checks. That language failed to attract a single Republican vote during the panel markup, and conservative Democrats such as Manchin and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have said they cannot support the package without changes to the language on background checks.
The Senate’s failure to expand background checks means the three pillars of Obama’s gun control agenda have stalled. The chamber also rejected a proposal to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity bullet magazines. However, a gun-rights amendment deemed a poison pill by Democratic leaders fell three votes short on Wednesday.
Much of Washington’s focus will now turn to immigration reform, another top item on Obama’s agenda. Meanwhile, the media’s focus is on the investigations of the Boston Marathon attack and the recent revelations of ricin-tainted letters.
On Wednesday, Manchin criticized the NRA, which has given him an A rating, for distorting the substance of his amendment.
Manchin said the group deceived lawmakers by saying the bill would criminalize the private transfer of firearms.
“I don’t know how to put the words any plainer than this: That is a lie,” he said.
Manchin and Toomey are likely to see their NRA rating downgraded as a result of leading the charge to expand background checks. Toomey is up for reelection in 2016, though political experts say his alliance with Obama will help the freshman senator’s reelection campaign.
Obama called Begich and Pryor last week, but he did not press them hard on the vote.
“It wasn’t a high-pressure sales job,” Pryor told The Hill on Monday.
Biden traveled to Capitol Hill to preside over the vote. He predicted Democrats would be able to expand background checks in the future if they fell short Wednesday.
“I can assure you one thing — we are going to get this eventually. If we don’t get it today, we are going to get it eventually,” Biden said.
Reid pledged after the vote to bring legislation expanding background checks back to the floor and force Republicans to vote against it again.
“I want everyone to understand this is just the beginning,” he said. “This is not the end.”
Reid expressed confidence that Democrats would have a potent political issue in next year’s election if Republicans refuse to accept a compromise on background checks. The Nevada Democrat has a B rating from the NRA, which opted not to endorse him in his 2010 race.
“Today the brand of the Republican Party has become even more out of step, more extreme than it was before, and that says a lot,” he said. “At the beginning of this process I made it clear that any legislation to pass the Senate must include background checks to be effective. That is still the case.”
Democratic leaders could revise the legislation to give centrist Republicans and Democrats reason to switch their votes. Yet, Obama’s tough remarks on Wednesday — he said senators who voted no “caved to the pressure” — suggest a compromise won’t be reached anytime soon.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, noted it took several attempts to pass background-check legislation through the Senate in 1999, a proposal that ultimately failed to be reconciled with House legislation.
“In 1999 it took a couple weeks to get the gun show bill off the Senate floor, and we’re not giving up with this vote,” he said.
Amie Parnes and Justin Sink contributed.