WASHINGTON (CNN) — A long-awaited Senate showdown on gun legislation was set to begin Wednesday with the first votes on amendments to the package pushed by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the early votes would include the bipartisan agreement on expanding background checks proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania.
Also expected to come up Wednesday will be Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to ban the sale of semi-automatic firearms modeled after military assault weapons.
Due to procedural steps by Republican opponents, the amendments require 60 votes to pass in the 100-member chamber, meaning Democrats and their Independent allies who hold 55 seats need support from some GOP senators to push them through.
Other provisions of the overall gun legislation package include tougher laws on gun trafficking and straw purchases, and steps to devise ways to improve safety in schools.
The proposed package is the most significant gun legislation before Congress in almost two decades, and comes four months after the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 first-graders and six educators.
Obama has pushed hard for Congress to include expanded background checks and the White House campaigned in support of the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
However, fierce opposition by the powerful National Rifle Association, which promised political retribution against supporters of tougher gun laws, made passage of the Manchin-Toomey amendment uncertain.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, one of the Republicans who Democrats hoped would support the background check proposal, said Wednesday she would oppose it because she believed it would “place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales.”
The NRA has said an expanded background check system would be the first step toward a national gun registry and therefore a violation of the constitutional right to bear arms.
Manchin and other Democrats reject that claim, noting the compromise amendment prohibits a national gun registry and criminalizes misusing background check data for that purpose.
On the Senate floor before Wednesday’s vote, Manchin said the issue of background checks “is not going to go away,” regardless of how the chamber votes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Republicans that the strong majority of Americans who support expanded background checks won’t forget votes Wednesday against the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
“The American people … have a long, long memory,” he said.
Ayotte said she was joining other conservative Republicans in proposing an alternative package of gun laws believed to reflect the position of the NRA.
Other amendments to the gun package passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee will include a proposal by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to make state concealed weapons permits acceptable throughout the country, as well as a bipartisan proposal dealing with mental health.
The Senate debate was expected to last two weeks, and any legislation passed would then go to the Republican-led House. So far, House Speaker John Boehner has stopped short of promising a vote on whatever the Senate sends over.
Obama and others have been highlighting daily gun violence in America in their appeal to lawmakers for stricter limits.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that “everybody in the White House is working on this issue from the president on down.”
Many in Washington have coalesced around expanding background checks conducted on gun sales. However, settling on the exact mechanism of such a step has been difficult in a sharply divided political climate, with the NRA leading a strong lobbying effort against proposed changes.
Few amendments may pass
A CNN tally of senators indicated the measure was probably in trouble unless several undecided Democrats and Republicans — mostly from conservative states — ended up supporting it.
The proposal would extend background checks to private transactions at gun shows and all Internet sales.
Reid, D-Nevada, said last month that Feinstein’s revised ban on some semiautomatic weapons, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with no Republican support, has no chance of passing.
He agreed to allow Feinstein to propose it as an amendment instead of including it in the legislative package from the judiciary panel.
Polls support background checks
Polls show that a strong majority of Americans support some type of initiative to stem gun violence. In a CNN/ORC International poll released last week, 86% of Americans say they support expanded background checks.
However, a majority of Americans also fear that increased background checks would lead to a federal registry of gun owners that could allow the government to take away legally owned weapons.
Carney called any claim that the Manchin-Toomey plan would lead to a federal gun registry and confiscation of firearms “absurd and false and wrong.”
“The legislation itself prohibits that,” he said, adding “what should be clear to those senators who are considering this, because it’s clear to the American people, is that this is common sense.”