Will Gun Control Pass Congress? Watch These Five Senators

Michael Catalini

Now that President Obama has unveiled his gun control proposals, attention turns to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is expected to be the first to take up the president's agenda.

The biggest key to getting any legislation passed is convincing a handful of the Democratic senators from conservative states, with sterling NRA ratings, to break with the gun lobby and cast their fortunes with the White House.  That will be no easy task: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is already telegraphing reservations about the proposals, telling the Washington Post that at least 10 Democratic senators up in 2014 could be adversely impacted by such legislation.

Meanwhile, the White House is looking for a few daring Republican moderates – from more Democratic-friendly states – to help compensate for expected defections within the Democratic caucus.  There aren’t many, but in a close vote, Obama may only need one or two.

Here's a look at six key senators whose position on the president's agenda could telegraph the fate of the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid is caught between two competing interests – the desire to keep a Senate majority in two years and the desire to help facilitate the president’s agenda.  But with the two possibly running up against each other – most of the vulnerable 2014 Democrats represent gun-owning states -- Reid seems to be more about self-preservation than passing new gun laws.

He signaled support for the president but did not promise the measures would clear the chamber. The Senate majority leader issued a lukewarm statement after the president unveiled his proposals, saying the Senate "will consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence." This comes after the Reid said on a Nevada television show last weekend that an assault weapons ban has no real chance of passing the House. “Is it something that can pass the Senate? Maybe. Is it something that can pass the House? I doubt it,” he said.

If Reid’s not on board, any legislation would be in serious trouble.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. Hagan might be one of the only Southern Democrats up in 2014 that could break the White House’s way. (Mark Warner would be the other.)  She represents a state with a high concentration of gun owners, but also one that’s becoming more urban and diverse.  Obama won the state in 2008, and only narrowly lost it in 2012.  If Obama can effectively re-mobilize his diverse coalition to pressure politicians, Hagan would be one of OFA’s top targets.  Hagan has cultivated a centrist voting record in the Senate, but is a shade to the center of Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, also up in 2014.

She made a carefully worded statement recently, making clear that gun-owners in North Carolina should not worry about their firearms being confiscated. “I think we need to look at access to guns. I think we need to have a common-sense debate. ... We are not taking your weapons away," she told the News & Record.

Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Kirk, who returned to Capitol Hill after suffering a serious stroke, is the rare Republican who supports the assault weapons ban, telling the Lake County News-Sun that he backs the measure. He is also worth watching because he's has an F rating from the NRA and reintroduced the assault weapons ban in 2008 four years after it expired.  But will Kirk buck his own party, and back every element of the president’s proposal or wait and see how things transpire?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Manchin was one of the first pro-gun Democrats with an A rating from the NRA to weigh in after the Connecticut school shooting, calling for a debate about what could be done on guns. He has since backtracked his comments, saying recently that the political reality made it difficult to pass sweeping legislation through Congress. Manchin's position on the issue matters because West Virginia is culturally conservative and votes Republican in presidential elections. But he’s not on the ballot for another six years, giving him a little more leeway than his colleagues up for re-election. If Manchin doesn’t have wiggle room to take a tough vote, it will be hard for the other red-state Democrats to do the same.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins, even more than Kirk, could end up being the more interesting Republican swing vote.  She’s one of the few remaining moderates left in the Senate, and has sounded a more conciliatory note towards the White House than most of her GOP colleagues.  But while Maine is a solidly-Democratic state, it’s heavily rural and features lots of hunters. (Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud openly touts his NRA ties on his campaign homepage.) And she’s up in 2014, and may be as interested in avoiding a challenge from her right as she is from a Democrat.