WASHINGTON -- As congressional Democrats shape their strategy for considering President Barack Obama's proposals to curb gun violence, sharp divisions are forming between lawmakers who believe that the best path to success is through narrowly written bills and a meticulous legislative process, and those who advocate a more guerrilla approach.
Many Democrats, and some Senate Republicans, believe that the only legislation that has a whisper of a chance of passing would be bills that are tightly focused on more consensus elements, such as enhancing background checks or limits on ammunition magazines, subjected to debate in committee and then brought to a vote after building bipartisan support. That would be a departure from recent years, when leadership often sidestepped committees and sought to take fights directly to the floor.
Others, particularly those senators who have long fought for gun-control measures, believe that a plodding process allows too much time for opposition to build, and prefer to fast-track measures by adding them as amendments to other bills, even blocking bills in ways that have angered Democrats, until they are granted votes on those ideas.
"We can't sit around for months talking and letting the gun lobby run out the clock," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J. "If we're going to make progress, it's essential that we move quickly and start voting as soon as possible."
Democrats are united on one point: For any legislation to reach the Senate floor, Mr. Obama will have to put the full weight of his office and bully pulpit behind it to get it there. Speaking Thursday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Vice President Joe Biden vowed that the administration would ceaselessly press its case. "We're going to take it to the American people," he said. "We're going to go around the country making our case, and we're going to let the voices, the voices of the American people be heard."
Without constant public pressure and a concerted effort to woo conservative Democrats, especially those up for re-election in red states in two years, there will be little impetus, numerous Democrats said, to move legislation along. Democrats also may be forced to decide whether to endure a lengthy legislative battle on guns at the expense of priorities such as immigration.
Recognizing that public pressure is going to be required to move such contentious measures, the president's former campaign aides in the weeks ahead will convert the Obama for America operation into a different kind of outside political group led by Jim Messina, the president's former campaign manager, according to people familiar with the plans. The new organization will be able to raise money for grass-roots campaigning on behalf of the president's second-term agenda, they said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has spearheaded other legislation desired by the White House, will take a more passive role with any gun legislation, aides to Senate Democrats say, letting the administration set the agenda and allowing senators to press ahead through their committee leadership or interest in the issue. Mr. Reid, who was deeply disturbed by the shootings last month in Newtown, Conn., is a long-standing gun rights supporter, a necessity for any statewide official from Nevada.
Mr. Obama's efforts on Capitol Hill will provide the most crucial test of whether the Newtown mass shooting in which 20 children were killed, and the unyielding National Rifle Association response, have ushered in a new chapter in a legislative era that began in 2004 with the assault weapons ban's expiration. Since that time, most new gun legislation has emerged in statehouses, and Washington has largely enforced gun rights.
The political sensitivity around guns can be gauged somewhat through the measured statements of lawmakers long associated with gun rights.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who in 2009 sponsored a successful measure that repealed a gun ban in national parks said, "My goal is the opposite. I believe Congress has a responsibility to review all of our laws and make adjustments as necessary in a transparent, open and deliberative manner."
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has a mixed legislative record on guns, said the first hearings he would schedule in the new Congress would be on gun legislation. He was the only senator to attend an event with Mr. Obama this week to announce his push on gun laws.