Senate Democrats have set Thursday as the date for the first major gun showdown in Congress since the Connecticut school shootings, saying they will put their gun control bill on the chamber floor and dare Republicans to filibuster it.
At least nine Republicans have signaled that they will vote with Democrats to bring the bill to the floor, but it’s unclear whether Democrats will be united. If the bill doesn’t get 60 votes, the chamber won’t be able to begin debating it — much less see it through to passage.
“We’re moving forward on this bill. The American people deserve a vote on this legislation. And I’m going forward on this regardless of whether it’s a compromise or not,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters as he laid out his strategy Tuesday afternoon.
The vote Thursday will be the first in either chamber of Congress since the December rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which a young gunman massacred 20 students and six adults at the school.
President Obama has stepped up pressure for Congress to pass a broad set of gun controls, including banning military-style semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and universal background checks for all gun purchases.
But the bill Mr. Reid will bring to the floor doesn’t include the weapons and magazine bans. Instead, it expands background checks to encompass almost all private transfers, imposes new penalties on gun traffickers and “straw purchasers,” and allocates $40 million to bolster school safety.
Mr. Reid said he will allow the gun and magazine bans to be brought to the floor as amendments, where they will likely need 60 votes to pass — something neither is likely to achieve.
But Mr. Reid said Tuesday he isn’t sure he has the 60 votes needed just to overcome a filibuster. While nearly a dozen Republicans have signaled they are willing to buck their party and halt the filibuster, some Democrats could join the Republicans.
Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas said Tuesday that they weren’t sure how they would vote.
“I’m going to wait and see what’s proposed — it’s that simple,” Mr. Baucus said.
Mr. Pryor said he wanted to see what was in the proposal and that he has informed Mr. Reid he might oppose a motion to invoke cloture.
“I haven’t made a final decision on that,” Mr. Pryor said. “I just don’t want to get committed on that without knowing what all the options are.”
There are 53 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents in the Senate. If they all vote to proceed, Mr. Reid would need to sway five Republicans to move forward, and more than that number have said they will oppose an effort to delay debate.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois all had said they want a debate on the bill. On Tuesday, more Republicans began to come out against the potential filibuster, among them Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Susan M. Collins of Maine, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Dean Heller of Nevada.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is co-sponsoring a bipartisan measure intended to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, said he wants to see amendments first, but that he doesn’t support a filibuster just for the sake of blocking the bill.
Still, about a dozen Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said they will work to block the motion to proceed on the legislation, preventing it from getting to the floor for debate. On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell cited the dearth of Republican votes for the legislation in committee as the reason for joining the fight.
Talks also continued Tuesday between Sens. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, on background checks — the current centerpiece of the package. The two senators have scheduled a news conference for Wednesday at 11 a.m.
Mr. Reid said he hopes something will work out between those two and Mr. Kirk, and that he would like to see their product be one of the first amendments offered to the bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Manchin said Tuesday evening that he’s “very hopeful” about reaching a compromise Wednesday.
“Let me say that these have been all good talks — they really have been,” he said.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Reid is forcing the Senate “to take a leap into the unknown” and that “we are being asked to vote to proceed to an uncertain bill.”
“The world’s greatest deliberative body should not operate in this fashion,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Reid has pledged to move forward — even if the vote fails.
If the package does not get the 60 votes needed to move to the floor, he plans to offer pieces of gun legislation, like the weapons and magazine bans, as well as background checks, one by one.
That move would fulfill Mr. Obama’s call for his proposals to receive votes and force Republicans to oppose each of them individually, but would likely do nothing to move any of them closer to actual passage.
And regardless of what happens in the Senate, any bill would face an even more hostile environment in the House, where the Republican leaders who control the chamber have said only that they would look at whatever the Senate passes.
It’s unclear whether the current background check language, as written, could obtain the 60 Senate votes needed. The senators are trying to expand the types of sales and transactions that would be subject to background checks without angering gun rights advocates, who fear universal checks could give way to a national registry.
Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks, but private sellers and dealers at gun shows are exempt.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, is one of those planning to filibuster the motion to proceed. He said claims by President Obama and Democrats that Republicans are trying to block the debate are misleading.
“The president again is trying to rush legislation through Congress because he knows that as Americans begin to find out what is in the bill, they will oppose it,” Mr. Lee said. “Our job in Congress is to do everything in our power to ensure the public understands these bills and how it affects their rights as citizens.”