Senate Democrats are trying desperately to round up a bipartisan coalition in advance of a critical round of gun-control votes Wednesday afternoon, as fence-sitting Republicans began to peel away and new polling showed ebbing public support for tightening gun laws.
After days of backroom wrangling, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid lined up a vote on nine amendments for late Wednesday. The first, on a compromise proposal to loosen the firearms bill’s background checks provision, is considered the most vital.
The proposal, rolled out by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., would expand background checks to gun shows and Internet sales while exempting personal transactions. The amendment is aimed at winning over reluctant conservatives — if it fails, the overall bill stands little chance of passing.
Democrats face a heavy lift, as they must round up a 60-vote majority. They did so last week on a procedural vote, but that coalition now appears to be eroding.
Democratic leaders have given ever-changing assessments of where support stands. Vice President Biden said Tuesday that Democrats would get the 60 votes, but then said later in the day that it could come down to one or two senators.
Manchin reportedly said he does not have 60 — but then his office released a statement saying he “remains optimistic and hopeful that if Senators and the American people read the bill, they will support his commonsense approach to require criminal and mental background checks for advertised sales, including purchases at gun shows and online sales, without infringing on Americans’ Second Amendment rights.”
The vote math depicts a steep uphill climb for Democrats. Opponents will need just 41 of the Senate’s 100 votes to derail the Manchin-Toomey background check plan.
Thirty-one senators voted last week to completely block debate on overall gun legislation. Just two were Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska.
If all 31 oppose the Manchin-Toomey measure — and that is not certain — opponents would need just 10 more votes to prevail.
So far, 11 of 16 Republicans who voted last week to let debate on the gun bill begin have said they will oppose Manchin-Toomey. That would give foes of expanded background checks 42 potential votes — one more than they need to win.
Among the latest to announce opposition was Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
“I believe very strongly that our current background check system needs strengthening and improving, particularly in areas that could keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill. At the same time, I cannot support legislation that infringes upon the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Heller said in a statement.
So far, just three Republican senators have committed to voting for the amendment.
Still uncertain was support from some Democrats from GOP-heavy states, including Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus and Landrieu face re-election next year.
The Senate gun bill would extend background checks to nearly all gun purchases, toughen penalties against illegal gun trafficking and add small sums to school safety programs.
Perhaps helping explain Democrats’ problems, an AP-GfK poll this month showed that 49 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws. That was down from 58 percent who said so in January — a month after the December killings of 20 children and six aides at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school propelled gun violence into a national issue.
In a climactic day, the Senate planned to hold eight other votes Wednesday besides the one on background checks, all of them amendments to a broad gun control measure.
They included Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which are expected to lose; a Republican proposal requiring states to honor other states’ permits allowing concealed weapons, which faces a close vote; and a GOP substitute for the overall gun measure.
The concealed weapons amendment, seen by advocates as protecting gun rights, was vehemently opposed by gun control groups, who say it would allow more guns into states with stricter firearms laws.
The votes were coming a day after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, badly injured in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., and her husband, Mark Kelly, tried galvanizing gun control support by visiting Capitol Hill and attending a private lunch with Democratic senators. Reid, D-Nev., called the lunch — senators said it included emotional speeches from lawmakers — “as moving as any” he has attended.
the Associated Press also contributed to this article.