Senators overcame a Republican-led filibuster on gun control Thursday, ensuring that the first post-Newtown legislation will reach the Senate floor and setting up bruising fights over expanded background checks and bans on some guns and ammunition.
Family members of the victims of December’s school shooting in Connecticut looked on as senators voted 68-31 to defeat the filibuster.
The vote signaled strong support to at least begin the gun control debate, but it does not guarantee that anything will be able to pass the chamber, where even some Democrats are wary of curtailing gun owners’ rights.
“The hard work starts now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said immediately after the vote.
Unlike most bills, where the outcome is known well in advance, there is tremendous uncertainty surrounding gun legislation, and the amendment debate will matter immensely.
First up will be a fight over background checks.
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The bill on the floor would require that almost every gun sale be subject to a check, but Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, have reached a deal on a more constrained proposal that would include all Internet and gun show sales, while excluding those between friends and family. That proposal also would explicitly prohibit a national gun registry.
Whether it can muster the 60 votes it will likely need to pass is very much in doubt.
Thursday’s filibuster vote was no indication that a bill will pass.
Sixteen Republicans joined with 52 Democrats to head off the filibuster, but two Democrats voted with 29 Republican in favor of one. Those two Democrats were Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, both of whom are up for re-election in conservative-leaning states next year.
Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who helped lead the filibuster attempt, said Democrats were trying to rush a bill through the chamber without giving senators enough time to be prepared.
“Because the background-check measure is the centerpiece of this legislation, it is critical that we know what is in the bill before we vote on it. The American people expect more and deserve better,” the three Republican senators said in a statement. “We believe the abuse of the process is how the rights of Americans are systematically eroded and we will continue to do everything in our power to prevent it.”
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Under current law, checks are required only on guns sold by federally licensed dealers.
Proponents of expanded checks say it will help keep criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from getting their hands on firearms, but gun rights supporters worry that expanding background checks to private transactions will be too burdensome for law-abiding gun owners.
Even some of the 16 GOP senators who voted to let the debate proceed said they cannot accept the Toomey-Manchin amendment.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and one of the 16, had taken to the Senate floor to denounce that proposal, while Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, who also voted against a filibuster, released a statement saying he judged the background check amendment a violation of the Second Amendment.
Mr. Reid is also studying his own Democratic troops to see how many of them will defect.
In addition to Mr. Pryor and Mr. Begich, other Democrats who represent conservative states, such as Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, will be watched.
President Obama has placed gun control at the top of his legislative agenda since 20 first-graders and six adults were killed in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., calling for bans on military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and universal background checks on virtually all gun sales, among other measures.
The White House welcomed Thursday’s development but said it was just a first step.
“There is still work to be done,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “This was simply, while very important, a first stage in an effort to get sensible, common-sense legislation that would reduce gun violence in America while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights signed into law.”
Mr. Obama spoke by phone with the Sandy Hook victims’ families after the vote to congratulate them on the development and tell them that a lot of work remains, Mr. Carney said.
Whatever passes the Senate will need approval of the GOP-led House.
On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he expects his chamber to vote on gun legislation this year, but he said he wouldn’t make any specific commitments until the Senate acts.
“I want this to go through a regular order, and I want the Judiciary Committee to take the time to look at whatever the Senate does produce, assuming they produce something, and have members on both sides review that and make their determination,” the Ohio Republican said.