Senators wrangle over how to shape gun-control amendments

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate struggle over guns is about to begin, and even the easiest votes are going to be hard.

It once looked as if the bipartisan compromise measure to strengthen background checks would be able to smoothly attract the 60 votes needed to move through the Senate. Instead, the measure’s fate was uncertain Tuesday, stuck at around 52 votes, as gun rights supporters from both parties expressed concerns.

And that’s just the start. In line for consideration are the big battles: a proposed assault weapons ban, extending concealed carry laws nationwide, limiting ammunition clips and more.

It’s all part of the amendment process. In the Senate, anyone usually may offer any change to legislation and, if he or she can corral 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles, achieve success.

Therein lies the problem gun-control advocates face: It’s going to be hard to get 60 votes for anything. Exhibit A? The background-check compromise so delicately crafted last week by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. It would extend background checks to gun shows and online sales but would exempt private transactions. At least four Republicans, including Toomey, support it, as do at least 49 Democrats.

“This compromise legislation shouldn’t be controversial,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Supporters were cautiously optimistic that they could get 60 senators behind them, but they pointed out that even if they only came close, it would be a victory of sorts.

The thinking is that if the measure receives 58 votes, pressure would be enormous on opposition senators to switch. Another vote could be taken later.

The pressure, though, would come from both sides. The National Rifle Association opposes the Manchin-Toomey amendment. So do most Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Other lawmakers are still sitting on the fence.

“We didn’t think it would be this difficult,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.

“We’re not there today,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Tuesday.

There’s been some talk that the amendment might exempt gun buyers who live in remote rural areas, a change that may mollify some wavering senators.

“We’re working hard to try to get people to ‘yes,’” Murphy said. “Manchin-Toomey is not set in stone.”

But an alternative backed by the NRA might siphon off votes. That amendment, sponsored by a group of conservatives who include Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would increase the number of mental-health records shared with the national background-check system but wouldn’t extend the system to more transactions.

Both sides were hoping to harness their lobbying firepower to fight for other, tougher changes. Gun rights advocates are pushing hard for reciprocity, which would require states that don’t allow concealed weapons to honor the concealed-carry permits of those that do.

Reid said he wanted to know more.

“Concealed carry is like baseball. How are you going to vote on baseball? It’s according to what it’s about. Concealed carry, it’s what kind of amendment it is,” he said, “so I’ll take a look at all this.”

Gun control supporters tried to gain momentum Tuesday at an unusually emotional Senate Democratic policy luncheon. Senators recalled gun-related horrors in their states, and they met with retired astronaut Mark Kelly and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Giffords was severely wounded in a shooting two years ago while meeting with constituents in Tucson. Six people were killed.

“Just their presence was powerful,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

But when the luncheon was over and senators finished recounting the drama, they had to concede that even the background check amendment was no shoo-in.

“Am I saying it’s all over with, done, we got the votes? No. But we certainly feel we have the wind at our back,” Reid said.

Supporters of the background-check amendment say they also have to watch the mental illness alternative. According to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of 900 mayors led by Michael Bloomberg of New York and Thomas Menino of Boston, one version of the proposal would make it harder to get “the seriously mentally ill” into the background check system, including people who’ve been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals.

Begich argued otherwise, saying the plan would “help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people without stigmatizing the mentally ill or taking away individual rights.”

The concealed-carry provision would be a deal-breaker for others.

“It would upend law enforcement’s job in New York,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “And we’re going to have to fight that tooth and nail.”

It’s unclear how many more amendments pushed by gun rights backers will come up, and the maneuvering will be intense. It may take only one successful amendment to scuttle the entire effort.

“You have to watch for ‘poison pills that would most likely derail the bill,” Cardin said.