With his calls for gun control faltering in Washington, President Obama on Monday traveled to Connecticut, the site of December’s school shooting rampage, to portray this week’s potential Senate showdown as a choice between saving children’s lives or caving to special-interest gun lobbies.
Leading chants of “We need a vote” from the audience at the University of Hartford about 50 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School Mr. Obama demanded that Congress hold votes on the contentious gun controls he has proposed: background checks on all gun purchases and bans on military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
But a deal on expanding background checks the new top goal for gun control advocates remains elusive, and Mr. Obama is facing increasing pressure from many in his party to show leadership.
“What’s more important to you: Our children or an A grade from the gun lobby?” Mr. Obama challenged members of Congress. “If there’s even one step we can take to keep somebody from murdering dozens of innocents in the span of minutes, shouldn’t we be taking that step? If there’s just one thing we can do to keep one father from having to bury his child, isn’t that worth fighting for?”
The legislation Senate Democrats will bring to the floor this week would require universal background checks on virtually all gun sales, impose stiff penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchasers, and increase funding for school safety measures.
But the momentum gun control appeared to have in December, after the massacre of 20 students at Sandy Hook, has faded amid opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also has pledged to allow senators the opportunity to offer amendments that would ban so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines two effectively symbolic measures that are widely presumed to fail.
That leaves the background checks as the chief fight. The current bill’s language is considered a nonstarter by most congressional Republicans, but several teams of negotiations are underway to try to write a compromise.
Sens. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, were in talks Monday on a compromise that could expand background checks to sales at gun shows and online, rather than all private sales.
But whether the bill comes to the floor is in doubt.
Thirteen Republican senators have said that they will oppose letting a bill come to the floor of the chamber if they believe it “will serve as a vehicle for any additional gun restrictions.”
Among those opponents is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who said he is willing to join a filibuster to block the legislation.
The Republican stance enraged Democrats.
“Shame on them,” Mr. Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. “The least Republicans owe the families and friends of those gunned down at a movie theater in Colorado and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a shopping mall in Oregon and every day on the streets of American cities is a meaningful conversation about how to change America’s culture of violence. The least Republicans owe America is a vote.”
Under rules adopted this year, Mr. Reid could force a bill onto the floor in exchange for allowing at least two amendments to Republicans and two amendments to members of his own party. But using that method would be a signal that the bill is unlikely to survive a filibuster later in the process.
Because of that, Democrats prefer to have a final compromise bill ready to go before they begin to vote. They were hoping to begin floor action this week, but with a compromise elusive, action could be pushed back.
Like Mr. Reid, Mr. Obama on Monday blasted Republicans for considering a filibuster. He also seemed to reply to some in his own party who said he needs to create a “sense of urgency” for stronger gun controls.
“You know what? This isn’t about me,” Mr. Obama said. “This is not about politics. This is about doing the right thing for all the families who are here that have been torn apart by gun violence.”
The White House will continue its effort to pressure Congress for action with events this week, including a meeting of the vice president and attorney general with law enforcement Tuesday at the White House, and first lady Michelle Obama traveling to Chicago on Wednesday to talk about gun violence.
Republicans argue that the debate isn’t about politics but about fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Second Amendment. They also question whether restrictions on types of guns and magazines will work to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.
“Senators have an obligation both to uphold the Constitution and to promote solutions that effectively address national problems,” Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, said Monday. “The current gun control proposals fail both tests.”
As Mr. Obama was trying to rally support in Connecticut, some in Washington were holding out hope for a deal.
A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn said the Oklahoma Republican is trying to reach a bipartisan deal on background checks. He had been negotiating with Mr. Manchin and Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also is considering alternate measures that could include improvements to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, providing resources to help address mental health problems and school safety, protection for veterans from false health determinations, and gun trafficking.
He may approach those items as separate issues or in a package, depending on what Mr. Reid does with the pending legislation, spokeswoman Beth Levine said.