(Politico) – President Barack Obama finds out this week whether he scratches out a narrow victory on gun control — or ends up with nothing at all.
Four months after the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school reignited the national debate over gun control, the issue is finally headed to the Senate floor. And the prospects still look bleak for those hoping for sweeping reform.
The unlikely key to the answer might be a conservative GOP senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey. The former head of the Club for Growth has emerged as a last-minute possible partner on a deal. But his stamp of approval is far from certain. If a deal emerges, Republicans could delay action on it for a week.
Senate action is Obama’s best chance for a deal — but even there, Democrats haven’t settled on which bill to advance. The White House and most Democrats are behind a proposal that requires background checks for all gun sales, although even that is far less than what gun control advocates had hoped. Obama, though, won’t get anything better in the House, and he might not get that much.
After the Newtown tragedy, Obama pledged to use the full power of his office to prevent another such rampage. He’ll be in Hartford on Monday with victims of the shooting to continue his drive for congressional action on guns.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is set to huddle Monday with other Democratic leaders to hash out a floor strategy. Reid will have to decide early in the week whether a bipartisan compromise on background checks is possible or whether a promised GOP filibuster will prevent the Senate from taking broad action.
Proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are all but guaranteed to go down to lopsided defeats. The battle is now over how tough to make a background checks bill for gun sales — which polls show the public broadly supports. Conservatives have balked at record-keeping requirements when background checks are conducted, and Democrats have had a difficult time finding a GOP ally to sign on to a deal including them.
Democratic leaders are considering advancing one of three background checks bills: a Democrat-only bill by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer — the “gold standard,” as one gun control advocate put it — goes forward to almost certain defeat; an alternative proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) without Democratic backing that calls for universal checks but includes wide exemptions for record-keeping added after pressure from gun rights groups; and a bill by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), which calls for expanding background checks and records requirements for commercial sales but not private ones.
Reid and top Democrats will decide which version to put forward, and the outlook there is far from certain.
Up until now, Democrats have been unable to line up a conservative Republican to back a broad background checks bill. Manchin last week began negotiating with Toomey — a longtime ally of the powerful National Rifle Association — but as of now, no deal has been reached.
Manchin has until Tuesday to reach a compromise with Toomey for his expanded but not universal background checks bill. Since those talks began in earnest last Thursday, gun control and law enforcement groups have expressed their dismay over the possibility of ceding the universal checks that they — along with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — have called for since Newtown.
Obama, Biden and Schumer have all been in regular contact with Coburn, but their talks haven’t yielded a breakthrough.
Manchin is trying to sell Toomey on a bill that would require checks and records of sales in a commercial setting, including at gun shows and online. Loopholes would remain for private sellers. And people who sell a gun that is later used in a crime would not be held responsible for that action.
Law enforcement officials and the major gun control advocates are not fans of the proposed loopholes, a fact they relayed Friday during a White House meeting with Biden chief of staff Bruce Reed. Many of those who met with Reed would be discouraged not to have passed meaningful legislation in Newtown’s wake but would be satisfied to have the issue to fight for during the 2014 midterm elections.
“The Manchin bill is the one that people have to be dragged to kicking and screaming,” said one official with a major gun control organization. “But it is better than the Coburn bill.”
For now, Toomey is key to the deal both in the Senate, where he could provide cover for other Republicans and conservative Democrats, but also in the House, where he is thought by advocates to bring with him the votes of several of Pennsylvania’s 13 House Republicans.
In a statement last week, Toomey signaled he was open to a compromise on background checks. “And, so I’m in favor of making changes to a background system if I believe that it would help to reduce the likelihood that a person who shouldn’t have access to a gun doesn’t get access to a gun,” Toomey said in a local TV interview.
Reid has promised gun control advocates votes on an assault weapons ban and prohibitions on high-capacity ammunition magazines — both of which will go down to certain defeat — but it is the battle over expanding background checks where all the action is focused.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and a dozen other Republicans — including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida — have threatened to filibuster any gun bill, potentially restricting Reid’s options over what can be brought up for votes.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is preparing his own alternative gun bill, a move that could lure potential GOP support. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is up for reelection next year and concerned about a possible primary challenge from the right, has yet to show his hand on what he would support.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer chided Republicans on Fox News Sunday for threatening to filibuster gun legislation.
“Now that the cameras are off and they’re not forced to look the Newtown families in the face, now they want to make it harder and filibuster,” he said.
Reid is also boxed in by his desire to protect red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014. These lawmakers would be happy to oppose the assault weapons ban or magazine limits yet might not want to be forced to support a Democratic-authored background checks bill with no Republican cover.
Under revised Senate rules agreed to in January, Reid could circumvent a GOP filibuster by promising each side two amendments to the legislation. That would allow the Senate to begin debate on the legislation, yet with no promise it would finish. Senate Republicans could continue to filibuster a bill even after debate begins, preventing any final up-or-down vote on the bill.
GOP opponents would then continue to hammer away over their claims that gun control proponents, including Obama, are secretly trying to push an agenda that eventually leads to the government seizing guns. These Republicans have charged that the record-keeping requirements for background checks would lead to registration of gun owners, providing a blueprint for future confiscation, an assertion vehemently rejected by Obama and the Democrats.
“There are a handful of senators led by Sen. Cruz who have said they want to filibuster and not even allow us to debate this bill. That would be very wrong,” Schumer said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We certainly should be at least be allowed to get on the floor and have debate.”
Schumer said he was “still hopeful” that when a bill gets on the floor, “what I call the sweet spot — background checks — can succeed.”
Or Reid could move a narrower bill, one covering only beefed-up penalties for gun trafficking, as well as increased school safety funding, and force Republicans to block that measure, too.
Without support from a conservative Republican, Reid and the White House could even choose not to bring any gun measure up for a vote, preferring instead to keep pounding the GOP on the issue, said top Democrats.
However, all these options depend on whether there is bipartisan agreement on background checks.
“Plan A is if there’s no deal, and we have status quo, we move forward with the bill that we have and let the chips fall where they may,” said a top Democratic aide. Democrats would then paint Republicans as obstructionist and say they are afraid to debate the issue. “By Monday, we should know which direction we’re heading in.”
The House is an even more hostile environment for gun control advocates — and it says it will take action only if the Senate does. Only one Republican, Rep. Peter King of New York, has signed on so far to the House version of universal background checks.
Obama’s appearance in Hartford will be his third speech in as many weeks calling on Congress to adopt universal background checks. Obama has met repeatedly with the parents and family members of the 26 victims of the Newtown massacre and others who have lost family to shootings.
Biden and first lady Michelle Obama will also hold events on gun control throughout the week.
Biden will host his own gun control event with local law enforcement officials Tuesday at the White House and is scheduled to appear on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to discuss guns Thursday morning.
And Michelle Obama will be in Chicago on Wednesday to speak about gun violence.