A sense of pessimism was settling in among supporters of a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers, with an aggressive push from the White House and families of Newtown shooting victims still short of the votes needed when the legislation is considered later today.
"If any of my colleagues wish to vote against stronger background checks – go ahead and do it and oppose the will of the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today as he opened debate on the bill. "But the American people have a long, long memory."
The Senate is scheduled to begin voting at 4 p.m. on the most sweeping gun legislation in two decades. A bipartisan plan to expand background checks at gun shows and in online sales – a compromise deal by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – still faced skepticism from most Republicans and a few Democrats from gun-friendly states.
"I'm still optimistic we can get there, but as of this morning we don't have the votes," Manchin told ABC News. He said the legislation was being "mischaracterized" by critics and urged his colleagues to "follow their conscience and read the bill."
But as Manchin left the Senate floor shortly before noon, his words underscored the challenges facing the bill. "Whatever happens today will happen," he said. The need to impose new gun measures, he added "would not go away."
The showdown on guns is set to unfold in a series of votes this afternoon on at least nine amendments, ranging from a Democratic proposal to ban assault weapons and a Republican proposal that would effectively create a national conceal-carry law. If that measure passes, senior Democratic aides say, Reid is likely to kill his own bill or send it back to committee for another attempt.
But before the voting began on the Manchin-Toomey background check bill, Reid declared from the Senate floor that he would vote for a ban on assault weapons, which put him at odds with a longtime ally, the National Rifle Association.
"We must strike a better balance between the right to defend ourselves and the right of every child in America to grow up safe from gun violence," Reid said today. "I'll vote for the ban because maintaining the law and order is more important than satisfying conspiracy theorists who believe in black helicopters and false flags."
In the wake of the shooting four months ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., supporters of gun control legislation thought they could rally support for at least a provision to expand background checks – far less than the original proposals from the White House.
The Manchin-Toomey background check measure was designed to draw the support of Republicans, particularly because of a provision allowing family members who sell or give guns to one another to bypass background checks. But the bill, which was opposed by the National Rifle Association and other gun groups, encountered fierce resistance.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire was among the Republicans who said today she could not support the background check bill. She said she worried the legislation would restrict the rights of "law-abiding gun owners" and would "not prevent a deranged individual or criminal from obtaining and misusing firearms to commit violence."
Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who had been considering supporting the background check legislation, announced his opposition to the bill. He, along with other Republicans, cited Constitutional concerns.