WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats set Congress’ first showdown vote on new gun restrictions for Thursday as a small but growing number of Republicans appeared willing to join them in opposing conservatives’ efforts to block debate from even starting.
Making it personal, relatives of victims of the Connecticut school shootings lobbied senators face-to-face at the Capitol on Tuesday in hopes of persuading enough Republicans to back a debate and votes on meaningful gun restrictions.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Tuesday that he does not know if Democrats will get the 60 votes needed to break an effort by conservatives to prevent consideration of the legislation. But at least six Republicans have indicated an openness to begin debate. There are 53 Democrats and two independents who generally vote with them in the 100-member Senate, but some moderate Democratic senators might defect on an issue that provokes strong emotions among their constituents.
“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, mentioning the elements of the Democratic firearms measure.
A Senate vote to begin debating the legislation would be a temporary victory for President Barack Obama’s gun-control drive. It remains unclear, though, whether there are enough votes for final approval of the legislation.
Obama was calling senators from both parties Tuesday to push for the gun bill, according to a White House official.
Before meeting privately with senators at the Capitol, the Connecticut families had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden at his residence at the Naval Observatory, according to an administration official. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.
Obama’s gun-control proposals have hit opposition from the National Rifle Association and are struggling in Congress, nearly four months after the issue was catapulted into the national arena by December’s slaying of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Conn.
In a letter to Reid on Monday, 13 conservatives said they will use procedural tactics to try preventing the Senate from considering firearms restrictions, headlined by background checks for more gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that he would join the conservatives in trying to block debate.
Earlier Tuesday, Reid stood on the Senate floor before a poster-sized photo of a white picket fence with 26 slats, each bearing the name of a Newtown victim.
“We have a responsibility to safeguard these little kids,” said Reid, D-Nev. “And unless we do something more than what’s the law today, we have failed.”
In a hopeful sign for Democrats, at least six GOP senators have indicated a willingness to oppose the conservatives’ efforts to block the gun debate. Sixty votes will be needed to head off the conservative stalling tactics.
“The American people ought to see where everybody stands on this,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said he wants the debate to proceed.
Also indicating an openness to debate have been GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
In a written statement, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a leader of the effort to block the gun debate, said that effort would prevent Obama from rushing the legislation through Congress “because he knows that as Americans begin to find out what is in the bill, they will oppose it.”
The administration was continuing its efforts to pressure Republicans, with Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder making remarks Tuesday at the White House, joined by law enforcement officials.
Democrats were still trying to assess whether Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., had reached an acceptable compromise — or had a realistic chance of getting one — with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on expanding background checks for more gun purchases, Obama’s pivotal gun control proposal.
Manchin exited a lunch with other Senate Democrats Tuesday and said he would report to Democratic leaders later about the status of his talks with Toomey.
“We’re still working,” he said, adding, “I’ve done everything I can.”
An agreement between the two senators, both among the more conservative members of their parties, would boost efforts to expand background checks because it could attract bipartisan support. Abandoning those negotiations would put Democrats in a difficult position, making it hard for them to push a measure through the Senate and severely damaging Obama’s gun control drive.
Georgia’s Isakson said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning” that “the issue on background checks is how far they go and whether they violate rights of privacy.” But he also said he believes the issue “deserves a vote up or down” in the Senate.
Manchin has been hoping for a deal with Toomey that would expand the requirement to sales at gun shows and online while exempting other transactions, such as those between relatives and those involving private, face-to-face purchases.
Currently, federal background checks are required for sales by licensed gun dealers but not for other transactions. The system is aimed at preventing criminals, people with severe mental health problems and others from getting firearms.
Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., have also continued working for a bipartisan deal. Kirk, though, is considered too moderate to bring other GOP senators with him.