WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama gets set to barnstorm outside the Beltway in hopes of salvaging his gun policy reforms, the prospect of passing legislation of significance rests firmly on a single Republican lawmaker. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) finds himself at the epicenter of the gun debate as it enters a critical stage in the next few weeks.
Coburn's unwillingness to endorse a background check compromise has frustrated Democrats, who spent weeks negotiating legislative language with him. But he has conspicuously kept lines of communication open with the gun bill's chief author, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In the process, Coburn has become a veritable funnel for legislative activity. Reform advocates feel they need Coburn's blessing in order to get a significant number of Republican votes, mainly because Republicans are deferring all entreaties to him.
"I think there are a bunch of Democrats who want to get a bill and a bunch of Republicans who don’t want a bill at all," said Third Way's Jim Kessler, a longtime gun control advocate who has been pushing background check legislation on the Hill. "And then there are a bunch of Republicans and Democrats who want to do a bill that won't be as strong as Democrats want. All of them have said Tom Coburn is going to do the negotiations for us. When we visited Republican offices to talk about it, a bunch of them have said, 'We know Senator Coburn is negotiating on this and we will wait to see what he does.'"
Coburn's office did not return a request for comment. But his emergence as a linchpin for reform has added an element of intrigue and sometimes dizzying drama to gun policy negotiations.
The Oklahoma Republican, after all, has an A rating from the National Rifle Association. He supported allowing firearms on Amtrak trains and in national parks.He backed the ban on lawsuits against gun manufacturers and supported a bill that would have required states to respect other states' concealed carry laws. That he would emerge as the main Republican negotiator on a bill to expand background checks seems about as likely as Schumer being elected pope.
But in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, Coburn stepped forward, suggesting that there could be a bipartisan consensus around background checks. He wasn't deputized by Republican leadership to negotiate with Schumer. But he quickly became the public point man. Gun control advocates waxed sanguinely about the prospects that Coburn's leadership on the issue could bring 15 to 20 Republican votes.
Whether those were misplaced hopes remains to be seen. Coburn, one of the president's closest friends in the Senate, is still negotiating. And during a swing through his home state last week, he signaled that a bill could be salvaged in the upper chamber.
"I'm for enhanced background checks because it's a way for you to go online to make sure you're not selling your gun to someone you wouldn't want to have it," Coburn said at one stop. "About 80 percent of criminals get their guns from us" responsible gun owners. "The responsible way is to check them against this NICS list and they don’t know that you did it."
That said, the concessions being extracted to keep Coburn in the game have not been minor. Coburn has refused to budge from a demand that expanded background checks be done through a law enforcement or regulatory agency database portal instead of by a federal firearms license holder, arguing that any other system would encourage sellers to conduct black market transactions. Coburn also has insisted that no gun sales records be kept for those checks, warning that it would be a gateway to a national firearms registry.
For weeks, Democrats sought middle ground, offering ways to keep records that didn't give the impression of big brother tracking firearm purchases. Progress was elusive. Now, as the Senate gets set to consider legislation, aides and activists are entertaining a proposal to limit background checks to commercial sales (including private sales at gun shows and those done online), while exempting transactions between two parties that have a prior relationship. The portal system, too, could end up making its way into the final legislative compromise.
That's because acquiescing to Coburn appears to be the last good legislative option. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs 60 votes just to get a bill into debate. And after weeks of buildup, including pressure from Obama and his allied Organizing for Action advocacy group, Senate Democrats still refuse to give Reid united support.
On Tuesday morning, one of the holdouts, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), teased gun control advocates by telling "The Alice Stewart Show" that he supported "improving the background check" system. But Pryor wasn't talking about the bill under consideration. Instead, his office confirmed, he was referencing an NRA-sanctioned bill backed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Even if Reid were to get every member of his caucus to back the bill, he'd still need five Republicans to support the measure. Only one -– Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) -- has indicated that he would do so.
Coburn doesn't hold all the keys. Democrats continue to reach out to alternate Republicans, including other lawmakers with stellar reputations with supporters of gun rights. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has led that exploration for bipartisan support.
"All options are on the table including other Republican senators besides Tom Coburn," said a Senate Democratic aide.
But, as Kessler noted, Republicans in the Senate have so far declined the offers. Even those who supported background checks in the past -- including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- have shied away from sidling up to the negotiation table, either out of deference to Coburn or out of desire to avoid a bill against which its base is revolting.
"Coburn is the linchpin here," said one source close to negotiations.
Added a Republican leadership aide: "Sen. Coburn, as usual, has taken a principled stand in favor of Americans’ constitutional rights. He and other senators from both parties have made clear that the Democrat leadership can’t just ram a bill through the Senate that would infringe on those constitutional rights."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as a Democrat. He is a Republican.