WASHINGTON (AP) - A bipartisan proposal to expand background checks to more gun buyers is in jeopardy. The pool of potential Republican votes that Democrats will need to push the measure through the Senate has dwindled, and President Barack Obama was calling lawmakers Monday as both sides hunted support for a nail-biting showdown vote expected this week.
At stake is what has become the heart of this year's gun control drive in response to December's killing of children and staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Supporters consider a broadening of the buyers subjected to background checks to be the most effective step lawmakers can take, and Obama urged near universal checks in the plan he unveiled in January.
"This is America," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who spoke on the Senate floor as did Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., promoting the background check compromise they reached last week and on which the chamber will vote. "This is about can we make a difference, can we change something."
Sixteen Republicans voted last week to reject an effort by conservatives that would have blocked the Senate from even considering a broad bill restricting firearms. With that debate now underway, Democrats hope to win enough supporters from this group to gain passage of the first amendment to that bill - the compromise between Manchin and Toomey - though more narrowly than Obama had hoped.
So far, seven Republican senators from that group have said they will oppose the Manchin-Toomey plan and one is leaning against it. Combined with the 31 senators who voted against debating the overall gun bill last week, that brings potential opponents of expanding background checks to 39 - just two fewer than opponents will need to sink the legislation.
"The Toomey-Manchin proposal, while well-intentioned, is not a solution to illegal gun violence. We already have major holes in the current" background check system, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday in a written statement. Graham was among the 16 who voted to allow the debate to begin.
Opponents say expanded checks would violate the Constitution's right to bear arms and would be ignored by criminals. They are forcing supporters of the background check plan to win 60 of the Senate's 100 votes, a high hurdle.
Background checks, designed to keep guns from criminals and the seriously mentally ill, are currently required only for sales handled by the nation's roughly 55,000 licensed gun dealers. The Manchin-Toomey measure would extend that to sales at commercial venues like gun shows and online, while exempting other transactions like those between relatives and friends.