Despite President Clinton's appeal for swift approval of the Brady bill, a partisan standoff Tuesday triggered an extraordinary call for a post-Thanksgiving session to vote on a renewed attempt to break a Republican filibuster and pass the handgun control measure.
Senate negotiators met throughout the day Tuesday in an effort to end the deadlock and scheduled another negotiating session for today.
Meanwhile, Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) summoned the full Senate into session next Tuesday to try to break the logjam established by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and his allies in the prolonged end-of-session brinkmanship over the bill.
"This is a filibuster," Mitchell said. "It is a means by which the minority prevents the majority from voting."
Clinton, who talked by telephone with Dole, urged a renewed effort by both sides to work out their differences so the on-again, off-again legislation would be enacted in the near future.
"I believe in miracles," the President said.
The House and the Senate approved slightly different versions of the bill last week. A compromise worked out by a House-Senate conference committee was approved in the House early Tuesday on a 238-187 vote.
But Dole succeeded in blocking another vote in the Senate on Tuesday.
The long-debated bill, named for former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan, would impose a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases. Ultimately, it would require a nationwide instant-check system designed to prevent criminals and mentally incompetent people from buying guns.
"Sooner or later, this bill is going to become law," Mitchell said in a determined voice. "You can't have a legislative proposal that is supported by 90% of the American public that won't become law in this democracy."
But Mitchell said he did not know whether he could muster the 60 votes required to shut off debate and force a vote on final passage of the bill. The Senate tried twice last week--and fell short by three votes both times.
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), a supporter of the Brady bill, said he is concerned that some senators in favor of ending the filibuster may not return for the cloture vote scheduled next Tuesday. If proponents of the bill do not get 60 votes, another vote will be taken next Wednesday. Dole insisted that he was advocating only one modification to the final version of the bill that he said would make it more effective by hastening the day when a computer system for checking criminal records would go into operation.
"There are some people--maybe not many--who don't want anything to pass," Dole said, clearly not including himself. "But if (Brady bill advocates) won't accept 'yes' for an answer, it's pretty hard to get an answer."
Supporters of the bill said Dole and his allies had rejected a compromise offer late Tuesday evening that included language Dole, himself, had voted for two years ago. "Maybe overnight cooler heads will prevail," White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said. "It's inconceivable the Senate Republicans want to take responsibility for denying the American people the Brady bill by refusing language they already voted for."
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said he proposed that Dole agree to Senate passage of the conference report and then propose his modifications in separate legislation next year with backing from supporters of the Brady bill.
But Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chief House sponsor of the bill, said the pressure should be kept on the Senate to pass the same bill that the House passed.
"People should call their senators," he said. "Tell them to stop the games and pass the Brady bill."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) took a similar hard line in a Senate speech.
"The National Rifle Assn. and a handful of Republican senators are attempting to mug the Brady bill in the broad daylight of public opinion," Kennedy said. "This shameful obstruction must not be permitted to prevail."
But Metzenbaum, who has been fighting for years to enact the bill, took a more conciliatory attitude in his remarks on the Senate floor.
"Somebody's nose got out of joint," he suggested, after the Senate-House conference stripped out many of the Senate provisions in the final version of the bill.
Dole's refusal to allow the House-approved measure to clear the Senate by unanimous consent Monday changed the outlook for quick passage of the legislation. After the bill appeared dead at the hands of a Republican filibuster last week, it was revived and passed the Senate, 63 to 36, on Saturday night.
But it was clear that at least seven Republican senators who voted to prolong the filibuster also voted in favor of the bill Saturday. It was Mitchell's hope that he could get at least the needed 60 votes to break the filibuster from the 63 senators who voted for the bill.
Even so, Dole probably can depend on most of those who joined with him in blocking a vote last week to do so again next week, judging by the recent unsuccessful effort to break a filibuster against increased grazing fees on federal lands in the West.
Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who voted against the gun control measure and against efforts to halt the filibuster, said Tuesday he was "undecided" about how he would vote next week.
"The two sides are pretty close," he told reporters.
Dole's latest offer indicated that he no longer was insisting on provisions that would allow gun dealers to cross state lines and sell weapons in another state or allow guns made before 1918, instead of 1898, to be sold as antiques and thus be exempt from federal regulations.
Meantime, Brady and his wife, Sarah, said they were appalled at the Senate deadlock. Brady has been disabled since the 1981 attack.
"We will continue to fight for the very best bill we can get," Sarah Brady said.
* CHAOTIC CONGRESS: Old-style gridlock ended, but lawmaking was often a tortured process in 1993. A18