Despite signs of stepped-up White House involvement, a bipartisan compromise over expanded background checks for gun buyers remained elusive Tuesday as a Senate committee prepared for votes this week on curbing firearms.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been the lead Republican negotiating with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats over a compromise background-check measure. They've been stuck over Democrats' insistence that records be kept on sales between private individuals.
Coburn spoke at the White House last week with Vice President Joe Biden on guns and other issues, and received a phone call Monday from President Barack Obama in which they discussed "everything," the senator said. He declined to provide details.
"I think we're very close," Coburn said Tuesday in a brief interview. "I think we'll eventually get there."
Others were less optimistic. Senators and staff were talking constantly in search of a bipartisan pact but have not resolved the dispute, according to Senate aides and lobbyists on both sides of the issue. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to describe the status of private talks publicly.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to consider gun control bills on Thursday.
Expanding the background check requirement to nearly all gun sales was a cornerstone of Obama's gun proposals in January, issued a month after 26 students and staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., were shot to death. That incident has made guns a top issue in Washington.
Currently, background checks are required for sales by federally licensed gun dealers. Obama, Schumer and other Democrats want to expand that to nearly all transactions, such as private sales at gun shows and online. The record checks are performed in an effort to keep criminals, people with mental health problems and others from getting firearms.
Democrats say records must be kept of private sales because that would be the only way to verify that background checks for those transactions were conducted. Supported by the National Rifle Association, many Republicans have objected, saying that would be a step toward a government registry of gun owners — something they oppose and the White House has said will not happen.
"You're not going to pass a bill" that requires record keeping, Coburn said Tuesday. "You may get it past the Senate, but it's not going to pass the House. If you want to fix things, you should fix them in a way that you can make a change."
Leaders of the GOP-run House have said they'll wait until the Senate acts before moving on legislation. They've talked about improving the way states report mental health records to the federal background-check system, something many states do only minimally because of privacy concerns and other constraints.
Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have continued talking to other Republicans in hopes of finding another GOP senator to back a background check compromise. Moderate Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has been a supporter of the effort to strike a deal.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is scheduled to consider four bills beginning Thursday. Those measures propose banning assault weapons and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition; making gun trafficking a federal crime; boosting aid to schools for safety measures like video cameras; and expanding background checks.
All are considered likely to be approved by the panel, where Democrats have a 10-8 edge. The assault weapons and magazine bans face long odds of winning approval by the full Senate.
If Schumer and Coburn don't reach a background-check agreement, the committee is likely to consider a measure similar to one Schumer proposed two years ago broadening the checks to virtually all gun sales, with a few exemptions.
Even so, talks to reach a compromise could continue until the legislation reaches the Senate floor, probably in April.