WASHINGTON — Though 10 states will hold presidential nominating contests Tuesday, the two main Democratic contenders are likely to be pulled back to the Capitol that day for their first Senate votes of the year on a controversial social policy: gun regulation.
Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina both support extending a soon-to-expire assault weapons ban and tightening federal scrutiny of sales at gun shows. The Senate has locked in votes on those issues as California and nine other states hold primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.
Officials in each campaign said the candidates were on standby for a potentially tight vote, and the gun legislation was shaping up to be just that. Most Democrats support the proposals, to be offered as amendments to a gun liability bill, but many Republicans are opposed.
President Bush has indicated his support of the assault weapons ban and gun show background checks in concept, but the White House is discouraging amendments to the liability bill, which would shield gun makers from certain civil lawsuits.
The weapons ban, enacted 10 years ago, will lapse after Sept. 13 if there is no congressional action. Gun show checks have been controversial since the 1999 Columbine shootings, but Congress has not acted on several proposals to close what critics call loopholes in federal regulation.
Kerry, the front-runner for the nomination, has confirmed his availability for the votes with Senate leaders, two Senate Democratic aides said Thursday. The aides said there was also a "strong expectation" that Edwards would return.
"You don't want to be a Democrat in the position of having [the proposals] lose by one vote and you were out campaigning," one aide said. "It would be dangerous not to come back with the votes so close."
There is bipartisan support for the underlying bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). Advocates say it will prevent frivolous lawsuits against the gun industry by plaintiffs who make unsubstantiated claims that the industry is responsible for gun violence.
Bush backs it, but a bloc of Senate Democrats opposes it.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 70 to 27 to amend the bill to require handguns to be sold with child safety devices.
Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats, joined 42 Democrats, 25 Republicans and one independent in voting for the amendment. Democrats Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Zell Miller of Georgia and 25 Republicans were opposed.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.