04/16/2013 11:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

Background Check Vote Set Even As Outlook Grows Dire

WASHINGTON -- Months of legislative work will come to a head on Wednesday at roughly 4 p.m. as the Senate takes up amendments to gun legislation that will determine both its reach and likelihood of passage.

As of Tuesday evening, the landscape looked fairly bleak for those seeking new, stronger restrictions on sales, as late efforts to find an accord with rural lawmakers on an expansion of the background check system officially fell apart.

In all, nine amendments will receive a vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced on Tuesday evening. Those include a ban on certain assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, legislation to force states to respect other state's concealed carry laws, tougher penalties for straw purchasers of guns, and others. The most dramatic votes, however, will come on bills concerning the background check system.

Facing a 60-vote threshold for passage, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) spent Tuesday trying to make a last-ditch pitch of their bill to recalcitrant colleagues. At a Democratic caucus meeting, the West Virginia Democrat emotionally detailed the conversations he had had with the family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. His colleague, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), discussed the story of a Holocaust survivor who was shot to death while protecting the students he taught at Virginia Tech University. More senators followed, including Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both of Connecticut, talking about the tragedy that had occurred in their state in mid-December.

"It was call of, 'Let's do the right thing,'" said a Democratic Senate staffer, referring to Murphy's remarks, which focused on a heroic slain Sandy Hook teacher. "He felt very strongly that other members of the caucus needed to hear stories like that."

To bolster those efforts, President Barack Obama spent the day calling undecided senators to encourage them to support the Toomey-Manchin compromise, a White House aide confirmed.

But the lobbying didn't appear to have moved the ball as of Tuesday evening. Of the seven Democratic senators who started the week on the fence, six remained there.

The news was still more dire on the Republican side of the aisle. Efforts to placate rural lawmakers were proving fruitless, two sources close to negotiations told The Huffington Post. Toomey and Manchin had hoped that they could win over the support of senators like Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) if they exempted gun sellers from having to do background checks if they were a certain distance away from a federal firearm licenser. But Murkowski announced on Tuesday that she'd oppose the measure, saying she supports an alternative offered by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ind.) that reforms the current background check system without substantially expanding its reach.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, came out in full opposition. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) both announced they would oppose the deal, as did one of Manchin and Toomey's best hopes, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is close friends with former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), one of the most prominent figures of the gun control movement. The opposition culminated with Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) on Tuesday, whom both Toomey and Manchin thought could be persuaded to their side. He announced his opposition by warning that the bill could result in a national gun registry -- a provision that is squarely prohibited (indeed, punishable by up to 15 years in prison) by the bill's text.

"The amendment states three times that there can be no registry and makes it a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for misusing records to create a registry," said a frustrated Senate Democratic aide. "I’m not sure what else could be done."

As things stood on Tuesday night, Manchin and Toomey would need all eight of the currently undecided senators to support their measure in order to get the 60 votes to guarantee its passage. That assumes that one Democratic senator, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, is well enough to get back to Washington for the vote. Lautenberg's office told The Huffington Post that he is "feeling better and hopes to make it for the votes." Lautenberg's amendment to ban high-capacity magazines will be introduced by Blumenthal tomorrow in honor of the unique, tragic role the latter's state has played in the debate.

Lawmakers were already bracing the possibility of failure. Murphy sent out a frustrated tweet, reiterating his disbelief that Republican senators "would turn their back on 90% of Americans" -- a reference to the public support for background checks registered in most polls.

"I was naive," he added.

Aides meanwhile were gaming out what type of bill Wednesday afternoon's series of votes could produce. One possibility under consideration is a package that could actually end up expanding gun rights, as an amendment forcing states to respect other state's concealed carry laws was only narrowly defeated in 2009, when there were more Democrats in the chamber.

Another possibility is that the chamber could pass one of the alternate background check amendments should Toomey-Manchin fail. Two additional options are also under consideration, in addition to the background check language currently in the base bill, the most palatable of which appeared to be Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.).

The Oklahoma Republican, who negotiated with Democrats on the legislation before ending talks, has called for expanding the background check system through Internet portals and with no record-keeping of sales. Whether Republicans would swallow those provisions -- or Democrats their pride and philosophical convictions -- could not be determined as of Tuesday. The Huffington Post reached out to the offices of Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Mark Begich (R-Ga.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). None returned a request for comment.

One Democratic Senate aide who would talk, but only on condition of anonymity, was skeptical.

"I don't think you're going to have many Democrats who are supporting the bipartisan compromise who aren't serious," the aide said. "If a measure that has 90 percent of the support of the American people fails, [it's doubtful] that they're going to go to Tom Coburn's bill ... It may be like a fallback plan, but he's kind of the NRA's boy. I don't see it happening."

UPDATE: By Wednesday morning, the legislative landscape had grown even more bleak for Manchin and Toomey. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) both announced that they would oppose the legislation. Without senators flipping back, the legislation would not be able to get the 60 votes needed for passage.

Image by Andrei Scheinkman and Aaron Bycoffe.


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