Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) speaks to the media about the background check… (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA )
WASHINGTON -- A Senate plan to expand the background-check requirement for gun purchases faced a narrowing path to success Tuesday, as advocates for stricter laws sought to scrape together the last few votes they need from among a dwindling number of undecided senators.
To overcome procedural hurdles, the gun control bill and any major amendments to it will require 60 votes for passage. By Tuesday afternoon, the compromise on background checks negotiated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) seemed stuck a few votes short.
Only two other Republicans— Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois—have joined Toomey in supporting the measure. A handful of Republicans including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are undecided. Several Democrats who face reelection in conservative states, including Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana, have also not taken sides.
[Updated, 3:03 p.m. April 16: Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who was previously undecided has since announced that he will vote against the measure.]
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In an effort to hold their ranks together, Senate Democrats gathered Tuesday for a lunchtime meeting that included what Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called a “moving, tearful presentation” by Manchin.
Adding to the meeting’s emotion was a brief appearance by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was gravely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson two years ago. Giffords’ husband, retired Naval Cpt. Mark Kelly, spoke at the lunch, as well as senators from Virginia and Connecticut whose states have been affected by mass shootings.
“There were just so many moments there of just genuine inspiration -- from Gabby Giffords and her husband coming in, to statements that were made by Joe Manchin, by Tim Kaine, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy. I turned to my colleague Bill Nelson and said, now you know why you ran to be in the Senate, to be here at this moment in history. That was an inspiring lunch,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
But it is unclear if the testimonials swayed on-the-fence Democrats. And more 'no' votes from the GOP trickled into public view with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina the latest Republican to announce his opposition. In the last several days, 10 of the 16 Republicans who voted to allow debate on the gun bill have declared they would not back the Manchin-Toomey background check plan. Most gun-rights groups, including the influential National Rifle Assn., oppose the measure, although two smaller pro-gun organizations recently endorsed the plan.
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With the vote counting continuing, Reid said he continues to seek an agreement with his Republican counterpart over which and how many amendments to the gun bill would be allowed. Votes on the background checks plan could come as early as Wednesday, but Reid acknowledged the amendment’s success was not yet secured.
“Am I saying it's all over with, done, we got the votes? No,” Reid said. “But we certainly feel we have the wind at our back. The American people agree with us.”
Asked about the vote count as he left a ceremony to name a room in the Congressional Visitor Center in honor of slain Gabby Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, Vice President Joe Biden said, "We are working to get to 60, and it's fluid. And I think we're there, but it's not unusual, as you all know, for people to make up their mind at the last minute. So we'll see."
Others were less publicly optimistic. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has played a key role in the negotiations over the gun-control package, acknowledged that getting the 60 votes necessary to bypass a filibuster is “a struggle.” He said he would prefer to have “a little more time” to persuade senators to come on board.
“The more people look at the bill and see what’s in it, the better we do,” he said. “The more the families who were here again have a chance to talk the people, the better we do.”
Toomey and Manchin said they were open to looking at further changes in their plan to attract on-the-fence lawmakers. A possible tweak would be to exempt purchasers in rural areas far from licensed gun dealers from having to undergo a background check. That change would be designed to woo senators from rural states like Alaska. Manchin huddled for nearly a half hour on the Senate floor Monday night with Alaska’s two senators.
"We're looking at everything that could help," Manchin said Tuesday, after a brief meeting with Toomey, Giffords and Kelly.
Also on Tuesday, Giffords and Kelly attended the dedication of a room in the Capitol Visitors Center to Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords staffer who was among the six killed in the Tucson shooting.