WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 68 to 31 Thursday to begin debating legislation to curb gun violence, launching what many expect will be weeks of deliberations on the most significant proposals to overhaul the nation's gun laws in two decades.
As family members of the victims of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., watched from the balcony, 16 Republicans joined with 52 members of the Senate Democratic coalition on a procedural motion to proceed with debate. Two Democrats joined 29 Republicans in opposing the motion.
"The hard work starts now," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote. Earlier, he implored his colleagues to support debating the measure: "Whichever side you are on, we ought to be able to agree to engage in a thoughtful debate about these measures."
Debate will begin in earnest next week, when Reid said he will move to vote on a bipartisan agreement to extend the current background-check requirements to include any sale that takes place at a gun show or that is advertised in print or online.
"There is still work to be done," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "This was only, while important, a step in the right direction."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., billed the vote as a victory over the National Rifle Association, which urged lawmakers to block debate, and credited Newtown family members for helping to tip the balance.
"The only reason we are turning the page is because of you," Schumer told Newtown families who appeared with him at a news conference. "You spoke to Congress. You spoke to the American people. We looked in your eyes, we saw your loss. We saw the hole where your child, your sibling, your parent used to be."
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, called the bill "a symbolic gesture" and urged Congress to focus instead on boosting federal funding for mental health programs.