WASHINGTON - The Senate's top Democrat has set Congress' first showdown vote for Thursday on President Obama's gun-control drive as a small but mounting number of Republicans appear willing to buck a conservative effort to prevent debate from even beginning.
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced his decision Tuesday as the White House, congressional Democrats and relatives of the victims of December's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., amped up pressure on GOP lawmakers to allow debate and votes on gun-control proposals. Twenty first-graders and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, turning gun control into a top-tier national issue.
Meanwhile, participants from both parties said a bipartisan deal was imminent on expanding required federal background checks for gun purchases conducted at gun shows and online. The two chief negotiators, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., were expected to announce the compromise today.
An agreement on background checks - the cornerstone of Obama's plan to restrict firearms - could boost bipartisan support for the overall effort, at least initially, because Manchin and Toomey are among their parties' most conservative members. But the ultimate fate of gun legislation remains unclear, clouded by opposition from many Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Democratic-led Senate and the GOP-run House.
The emerging deal would expand required federal background checks to sales at gun shows and online, but exempt transactions like face-to-face, noncommercial purchases, said several Senate aides and lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Currently, the checks are required only for sales through licensed gun dealers.
On the Senate floor, Reid pointed to a poster-sized photo of a white picket fence that had slats bearing the names of the Newtown victims.
"We have a responsibility to safeguard these little kids," said Reid. "And unless we do something more than what's the law today, we have failed."
"We don't have the guts to stand up and vote yes or no? We want to vote maybe? Tell that to the families in Newtown" and other communities where there have been mass shootings, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of 13 conservative senators who signed a letter promising to try blocking debate, said the Senate bill puts "burdens on law-abiding citizens exercising a constitutional right." He said none of its provisions "would have done anything to prevent the horrible tragedy of Sandy Hook."
Obama was calling senators from both parties Tuesday to push for the gun bill, according to a White House official. A Senate vote to begin debating the guns package would mark a temporary victory for Obama and his allies.
Some Republicans, though eager to avoid blocking debate, could vote against the measure on final passage. Coupled with resistance by leaders of the GOP-run House to main parts of Obama's effort - including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines - the ultimate outcome seems shaky for Democrats.
Reid said he did not know if he had the 60 votes he will need to defeat the conservatives' roadblock. But at least eight Republicans have said they want to begin debate or have indicated a willingness to consider it: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
But some moderate Democrats are remaining noncommittal and might oppose opening the gun debate, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who are seeking re-election next year.
There are 53 Senate Democrats and two independents who lean Democratic.