March 7, 2013 11:00:25 AM
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's prospects for winning near-universal background checks for gun purchases seemed shaky as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared for Congress' first votes on curbing firearms since December's horrific shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.
The Democratic-led panel had four bills on its agenda Thursday as lawmakers began shaping their response to the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six staffers in Newtown, Conn. The shootings elevated guns to a top-tier national issue, though many of Obama's proposals have encountered opposition from the National Rifle Association and many Republicans.
Besides expanding background checks, the other measures would ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds, make gun trafficking and the purchase of firearms for people barred from owning them federal crimes, and provide more money for schools to buy video cameras and other safety equipment.
All four measures were expected to pass the committee, perhaps Thursday. But their fate when the full Senate considers them, probably in April, was less certain. The trafficking measure by panel Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was thought to have the best prospects and the assault weapons ban by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seemed to have the slimmest chance.
Democrats had hoped to reach a bipartisan deal on expanding federal background checks with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But on Wednesday, Democrats set aside their efforts to win over Coburn after weeks of talks failed to resolve a dispute over requiring that records of private sales be retained.
Their inability to craft a deal with Coburn was a blow to Democrats because of his solid conservative credentials and "A'' rating with the NRA. His support could have meant backing from other Senate Republicans and even moderate Democrats, including several facing 2014 re-election campaigns in GOP-leaning states.
In addition, gun-curb supporters say the Senate will have to approve legislation with strong bipartisan support to boost their chances of success in the GOP-led House. Republican leaders there have said they won't act until the Senate produces legislation.
Democrats said they would negotiate with other Republicans and would not give up on eventually cutting a deal with Coburn.
"We're confident plenty of senators already understand that this is the sweet spot where good policy and politics meet," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-curb group led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino whose membership includes more than 800 mayors.
Expanding the checks is the cornerstone and most popular part of Obama's effort to rein gun violence. They are now mandated only for sales by the nation's 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, not for private sales between individuals, like those at gun shows or online.
An Associated-Press-GfK poll in January found 84 percent favored requiring background checks at gun shows. Other proposed gun curbs were supported by just over half the public.
Thursday's Judiciary session prompted widespread efforts, especially by gun control advocates, to pressure recalcitrant senators and show signs of public support.
Supporters of gun curbs planned rallies outside the home-state offices of Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judiciary's top Republican, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., grievously wounded in a Tucson mass shooting two years ago, solicited contributions by email for the political action committee she and husband Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut, have formed to help elect lawmakers who back gun curbs.
"Your contribution will help us keep the pressure on Judiciary Committee senators while ensuring the rest of them see our message" during Congress' recess late this month, she wrote.
NRA officials said they have urged their members, said to number more than 4 million, to contact lawmakers.
Democrats say background check records, whether kept by the individuals, manufacturers or others, are the only way to ensure that the checks are conducted for private sales. Coburn said such information could help create a federal registry of gun owners -- something that is now illegal and the White House says would not happen.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also have been involved in the background check negotiations and said in a joint statement that they would continue looking for a compromise with other senators.
"Dr. Coburn is still hopeful they can reach an agreement," Coburn spokesman John Hart said Wednesday.
Lacking an agreement with Coburn, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., planned to seek a vote by the Judiciary Committee on a bill resembling a measure he initially proposed two years ago. It would require background checks for nearly all gun sales, with narrow exemptions including transactions between close relatives. It would also cut federal aid for states that don't send enough mental health records to the federal background check network -- a widespread problem that has fueled critics' complaints that the current system should be fixed before it is expanded.