WASHINGTON — Prospects for a bipartisan deal to expand federal background checks for gun purchases are improving with the emergence of fresh Republican support, the Washington Post reported Sunday, citing unnamed top Senate aides.
The possibility that after weeks of stalled negotiations senators might be on the cusp of a breakthrough comes as President Barack Obama and his top surrogates will begin today their most aggressive push yet to rally Americans around his gun-control agenda.
Even though polls show that a universal background check system is supported by nine in 10 Americans, Obama has been unable to translate popular support for the measures into legislative momentum on Capitol Hill.
But in a move that could bring along other Republicans as well as Democrats from conservative states who have not yet backed Obama's agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key Democratic broker, has spent the past few days crafting the framework of a possible deal with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Manchin and Toomey are developing a measure to require background checks for all gun purchases except sales between close family members and some hunters, which addresses concerns of some conservatives, according to the Senate aides, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the talks.
Toomey is usually a reliable conservative vote for Senate Republicans, but he faces re-election in a Democratic-leaning state in 2016. A new player in the monthslong gun talks, he is one of several GOP senators who have said that they would be receptive to supporting an expanded background check program if a bipartisan deal were to emerge.
Manchin, a moderate Democrat with an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, has been eager to strike a deal on gun-control legislation since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December that left 20 children and six educators dead in Newtown, Conn.
He has spent months negotiating with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., over details, but talks have stalled in recent weeks amid Coburn's opposition to Schumer's insistence on requiring gun owners to keep records of private gun sales.
Manchin has spent much of the two-week congressional recess seeking out other GOP supporters. Talks between Manchin and Toomey began in earnest on Wednesday, and the two have swapped proposed drafts, the Senate aides said. Any formal announcement of a deal won't come until Tuesday or Wednesday, when the men return to Washington and sort out details in person, the aides said.
If Manchin succeeds in striking a deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to move quickly to include that language in his bill, according to top aides. Reid's bill includes several of the leading Democratic proposals to curb gun violence, including a plan to expand background checks to all gun purchases, make gun trafficking a federal crime for the first time and bolster federal financing of school security programs.
At the White House, top officials remain confident of brokering a deal on universal background checks, which is the most politically palatable of Obama's gun-control proposals. The negotiations largely are being run out of Vice President Joe Biden's office. Administration officials privately concede that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are unlikely to pass the Senate when Reid holds up-or-down votes on the proposals as amendments to his gun bill.
In hopes of increasing public support for passage of a gun bill, Obama today will fly to Connecticut — where emotions are still raw more than 100 days after the massacre — to deliver a speech on gun violence at the University of Hartford.
On Tuesday, Biden will hold a gun-control event at the White House with law enforcement leaders, while first lady Michelle Obama will return Wednesday to her home town of Chicago to speak about gun violence from the perspective of a mother.
But Republicans also are mounting a campaign to stop gun legislation. At least 13 Senate Republicans, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, are threatening to block any new gun legislation, Senate aides said.