WASHINGTON, Apr 11 – The US Senate voted on Thursday to debate the most ambitious gun safety legislation in nearly two decades, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed on expanding background checks for firearm sales.
With relatives of the 20 children killed in the Newtown massacre watching from the visitors’ galleries, lawmakers overcame Republican obstruction and overturned years of Senate refusal to address the nation’s gun laws.
The move, which included 16 Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to proceed, sets up crucial votes next week on amendments to the bill, which also stiffens penalties for gun trafficking and boosts school safety.
“The hard work starts now,” Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues moments after the 68-31 vote.
White House spokesman Jay Carney relayed the administration’s encouragement of the “bipartisan progress” on display in the Senate.
But he stressed Thursday’s vote was just the “first stage in an effort to get sensible, common-sense legislation that would reduce gun violence in America while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights.”
President Barack Obama, who has leaned heavily on Congress to adopt his proposed steps to reduce gun violence in the aftermath of Newtown, meanwhile called families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims to congratulate them on the vote result and pledge his continued support in the fight.
Jillian Soto, sister of slain Newtown first-grade teacher Victoria Soto and who spent days pressing lawmakers on Capitol Hill to enact tighter gun laws, fought back tears on Thursday ahead of the vote.
She told reporters that while she had hoped for a tougher background check amendment, “I’m happy that we are getting somewhere.”
The crucial ingredient in the complex gun control recipe is undoubtedly the compromise on background checks reached by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey.
The deal waters down the universal background check system sought by Obama, which was opposed by scores of lawmakers including some Democrats – like Manchin of West Virginia – who hail from conservative-leaning, pro-gun states.
But it strengthens existing legislation, which only requires background checks for firearm purchases at licensed gun dealers, to require checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet. It would still allow gun sales between relatives and friends to continue without such checks, however.
The big question now is whether the legislation, in parts or as a whole, can pass the Senate and head to the House, where an even tougher vote is expected.
Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, where the main city Chicago is awash in gun violence, helped craft the compromise and is likely on board. And another moderate in the party, Susan Collins, has expressed her initial support, although she said she wanted to look closely at the bill’s language.
But in a sign of the issue’s political dynamite, two Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in pro-gun states, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska, voted against proceeding to debate on the bill.
Reid pledged to allow any senator to come forward with amendments to improve the broader bill, which is seen as the country’s most significant gun legislation since a 1994 federal crime bill.
And he told his colleagues to prepare for a series of tight votes in the week ahead, including on contentious amendments like a proposed assault weapons ban, which is supported by the White House but is widely seen as unlikely to pass Congress.
“Make no mistake about it – we have a tough fight,” acknowledged Senator Chuck Schumer.
But Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the state hit by last December’s massacre, said he has been awed by what he called the “seismic” political shift that has swept the country in the wake of Newtown.
“Four months ago people thought nothing would ever be done,” he said. “Today, we prove that conventional wisdom wrong.”
Two congressmen, Republican Peter King and Democrat Mike Thompson, plan to introduce similar background check legislation in the House of Representatives and have called on that chamber’s Republican leadership to bring it to a vote.
“The American people are getting a vote in the Senate,” Thompson said. “They deserve one in the House.”