WASHINGTON — The Senate moved Tuesday to begin long-anticipated deliberations this week over new gun laws as Republicans appeared to lack the strength to block the debate and bipartisan talks over expanding background checks on gun buyers appeared to have led to a deal.
Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who have been negotiating a compromise on background checks, scheduled a joint announcement for Wednesday morning at the Capitol. Talks are expected to begin Thursday.
The gun bill has been taking shape since 20 first-graders and six staff members died almost four months ago in a fusillade of 154 bullets at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It would authorize money to secure schools and increase penalties for illegal gun trafficking. But the most significant element, an expansion of the background check system to cover almost all sales, including those at gun shows, has been contentious.
On Tuesday evening, Manchin, who has led efforts to craft a proposal that could draw enough Republican votes to pass the closely divided Senate, expressed optimism that he was near his goal.
“The gun show loopholes will be closed, hopefully. And Internet sales loopholes will be closed,” he said.
The deal worked out by Manchin and Toomey would require all commercial sales, essentially those that are advertised to the public, to go through background checks, according to officials familiar with the negotiations. That would appear to leave out some private sales among individuals but cover the sales that gun control advocates say are a significant source of weapons to criminals.
Sellers would be required to go through a licensed gun dealer to conduct the background check, and the dealer would be required to keep a record of the transaction as they do now with guns they sell directly. Law enforcement agencies have said that those records are crucial to allow a trace of guns used in crimes.
The record-keeping requirement has been a major sticking point for gun control opponents, who say they fear that sales receipts eventually could be used as the basis for a national gun registry, something that is barred by federal law.
“I’m very hopeful,” Manchin said after he met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “I think everyone’s been genuine. So I feel very good.”
After the meeting, Reid took steps to schedule votes Thursday to overcome a threatened GOP filibuster that was aimed at preventing the debate on the Senate floor.
“It would be a real slap in the face to the American people not to do something on background checks, on school safety, on federal trafficking, which everybody thinks is a good idea,” Reid said.
Reid’s chances of winning that vote improved greatly Tuesday as several Republicans said they would not join the filibuster effort, which has the backing of more than a dozen of the party’s most conservative members.
Even if Reid has the votes to begin the debate, that by no means guarantees passage of the bill. Several Democrats who represent GOP-leaning states and face challenging reelection fights in 2014 said they were not yet prepared to support bringing the issue to the floor, much less vote for it.
On Tuesday, gun control advocates and the White House sought to heighten pressure on the Senate to act.
Relatives of some of the Newtown school shooting victims began a senator-by-senator lobbying campaign. Thirteen family members met with Vice President Joe Biden for breakfast at his official residence and then started their Capitol Hill rounds with Connecticut’s senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy, both Democrats.
“They are a call to action,” Blumenthal said. “If the Congress of the United States listens to its conscience and to its constituents, it will pass gun safety measures this week.”
At the White House, Biden, speaking to an auditorium full of police in uniform, blamed “the black helicopter crowd” for stirring up fears that the government wants to “swoop down” and seize everyone’s guns.
That opposition has stymied action, Biden said, frustrating the families of victims. “They really don’t understand — these bright, accomplished, innocent mothers and fathers and husbands — one of them lost his wife — they don’t,” he said. “They don’t understand how we could even be at this point debating this.”
He recounted how one mother said to him: “How do they explain not doing anything? My little girl, my baby, was hiding in a bathroom, and she got shot through the heart.”
Family members, talking to the media, disclosed few details of their meetings. They said they hoped keeping their talks private would improve the chances that the opposing sides would find common ground.
“I can’t say we were received with anything less than a heartfelt affection,” said Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, a school psychologist, was killed in the Dec. 14 shooting. Sherlach questioned how lawmakers would explain a failure to act to the parents, siblings and spouses they had already met, or soon would.
He said he hoped the families were able to help lawmakers see the issue in a fresh way. “We’re able to look at it in a little more simple fashion,” he said.