WASHINGTON -- Negotiations over legislation that would extend background checks for gun buyers are still officially on. But aides on the Hill involved in those conversations said a breakthrough remains far off and discussions are unlikely to get serious for another week or so.
"My guess is after Easter they will all start really talking because then that clock starts clicking," said a source close to negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The authors of the bill, set to head to the floor of the Senate after the Easter recess, were casting a wider net for potential Republican co-sponsors, according to a report this week. But one of those who reportedly being wooed -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- downplayed the report.
It's "way overblown," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers in an email. "His position hasn’t changed -– he’ll obviously consider what comes up for a vote, but he’s not part of the negotiations as he’s got a full plate with immigration reform, etc."
Another rumored Republican target, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) did not return a request for comment about his interest in background check legislation.
That means center stage remains occupied by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The two had spent weeks trying to find a middle ground on background check legislation before dropping talks. Once the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a placeholder background checks bill to get something to the floor of the Senate, conversations resumed. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that an expansion of background checks would be in the main gun control bill considered by the chamber, the talks took on additional importance.
But Schumer and Coburn remain at odds over two central issues -- how those checks are conducted, and whether records should be kept of firearms transactions.
Coburn wants new gun sales to use online portals for conducting background checks. Schumer wants a federal firearms license holder to do the work. Coburn doesn't support keeping sales records for private transactions. Schumer has said he sees that as potentially gutting the purpose of the law.
Finding a way around these hurdles isn't easy. Gun control groups don't want to give in on portals lest they open the door to replacing the existing system of licensed federal firearms dealers. Coburn has argued that sellers won't respect the background checks any other way, as sellers will refuse to pay the cost of conducting a check and will conduct business behind the scenes instead.
“We’re going to raise the cost of purchasing at a gun show?” Coburn told CSPAN on Sunday. "I don't think their bill will pass the Senate, and even if it does, it won't pass the House."
The record-keeping fight may be easier to resolve, but not by much. Gun control groups are increasingly willing to limit record-keeping to commercial transactions, exempting personal or family exchanges of weapons. But they don't want to go beyond that, arguing that more exemptions would encourage sellers to skip the background check entirely and make it harder for law enforcement to crack down illegal transactions, including straw purchasers. Coburn has repeatedly said he thinks sales record-keeping is a slippery slope toward a federal gun registry. It would hard for him to move off that perch at this juncture.
"You don't strengthen the bill by adding records, but you do kill the bill," said the source close to negotiations.
The sides still are talking, hopeful that somehow there will be movement before Reid calls for a vote, and cognizant that there are a handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate who have yet to commit.
Unless negotiations get more specific and serious after Easter, gun control may struggle to meet the 60-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.
"What is going on is the reality, and the reality is there is not much going on," one Senate aide said of negotiations. The aide was more diplomatic later in the conversation. "We are using the next two weeks as a critical period for garnering bipartisan support with the hope that a compromise version of the bill can be substituted into the measure that Sen. Reid filed at the end of last week."