WASHINGTON — A bipartisan proposal to expand background checks to more gun buyers seemed in jeopardy Monday as a growing number of Republican senators expressed opposition to the proposal, perhaps enough to derail it. But there was plenty of time for lobbying and deal-making to affect the outcome, which remained uncertain.
The White House said President Barack Obama was calling lawmakers, as both sides hunted support for a showdown.
As of Monday evening, some senators were saying the vote now appeared likely late this week, rather than midweek as top Democrats have hoped. Such a delay would give both sides more time to find support.
"The game hasn't even started yet, let alone over," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who reached a background check compromise last week with Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., on which the Senate was preparing to vote.
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.
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 under way, 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, which expands background checks but less broadly than Obama has wanted.
By Monday evening, eight Republican senators from that group of 16 said they would oppose the Manchin-Toomey plan and two were leaning against it. Combined with the 31 senators who voted against debating the overall gun bill last week, that would bring potential opponents of expanding background checks to 41 — just enough votes to block the Senate from considering the compromise.
"I'm not going to vote for it. It's not the right thing to do," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who was among the 16 who voted last week to allow the debate to begin.
But in the heated political climate and heavy lobbying in the run-up to the vote, it was possible that minds could change.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the gun legislation was "an absolute priority" and said Obama has been contacting senators, though he declined to say which ones.
But Carney said the vote would be "a difficult challenge." He said that because the Senate had voted last week to begin debating the measure "does not mean we have gotten to where we need to be, which is passage of legislation that is commonsense and that will reduce gun violence in America."