WASHINGTON -- A plan to expand background checks for gun purchases hit a roadblock Tuesday when Senate leaders pulled it from the floor as key sponsors worked to shore up support.
"I think there's significant momentum," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday afternoon, just hours after indicating there were disagreements "as to what we should do with gun legislation, if anything."
Key sponsors Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. -- along with Vice President Joe Biden -- had spent Tuesday trying to corral votes during telephone calls and meetings, and are expected to continue the effort today. They also called in former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to remind senators about the day in 2011 when she was shot in the head while speaking to constituents.
Some consider the bipartisan Toomey-Manchin plan the Senate's best chance to break a logjam and pass the first significant gun control measure in two decades.
"Am I saying it's all over with, done, we got the votes? No, but we certainly feel we have the wind at our back," Mr. Reid said Tuesday afternoon.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, disagreed.
"We haven't voted on it because supporters don't have the votes to pass it ... and I think they know it," Mr. Grassley said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "They're waiting for votes that probably will never be there."
The measure could come to the floor this evening. The Senate also will consider eight other measures, including proposals to ban assault weapons, outlaw large-capacity magazines and increase penalties for gun trafficking. Votes are expected to begin at 4 p.m.
Gun control has been on the forefront in Washington since December's school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The current background check system applies only to transactions with licensed gun dealers.
The Toomey-Manchin plan would require background checks for all commercial gun purchases, including those made online and at gun shows. The legislation defines commercial as any sale made as a result of any kind of advertisement, including in newspapers, on online message boards or on bulletin boards, such as at college campuses and grocery stores.
That wasn't enough for senators from rural areas whose constituents complained it's inconvenient to get to a licensed gun shop where background checks are conducted, so Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin hammered out a deal to exempt gun buyers who live in remote areas, Senate aides said. Details were still being worked out Tuesday evening, including the number of miles a gun buyer must live from the nearest licensed dealer in order to be exempt.
Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Manchin wouldn't comment on the specifics of the negotiations, nor would Mr. Toomey, who said only, "We're working on it."
Aides said the change was meant to appease Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, but it wasn't immediately clear whether it worked.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Begich, a Democrat, said her boss will look at the change and at the legislation as a whole before considering whether he can support it.
A spokesman for Ms. Murkowski, a Republican, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier Tuesday Mr. Manchin said he was optimistic the amendment would pass but knew he would need to rally more help from fellow lawmakers.
The sentiment was similar from Mr. Toomey.
He "is working hard to make sure his colleagues understand what his amendment does and does not do," a Toomey spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon. "The senator is still hopeful he and Sen. Manchin can round up the votes, and he is leaving no stone unturned."
While the two senators appeared to focus on colleagues believed to be swayable, families of the Sandy Hook victims don't want to leave out the most conservative senators such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a strong opponent of gun control.
A spokesman for Mr. McConnell confirmed that representatives of Sandy Hook Promise, which represents several Newtown families, requested a meeting and that the senator is willing to oblige. He has previously met with Newtown families, the spokesman said.
Even if the Toomey-Manchin amendment were to pass in the Senate, it faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House.
Lawmakers are under increasing pressure from the National Rifle Association to block gun control votes. The NRA has threatened to target gun control supporters when they run for re-election.
"This isn't an easy vote politically. I think we know what's at stake here," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Mr. Grassley said opposition is more widespread than Democrats acknowledge. Opposition isn't just from "fringe elements," he said, but from reasonable people who believe expanded background checks will infringe on the Second Amendment, that they won't reduce violence and that they will open the door to a national gun registry.
Several Republican votes are needed to prevent a filibuster by gun rights supporters. Sixty votes are needed in the 100-member chamber to overcome the threat of a filibuster.
"It would be a shame if we got into a procedural hassle on all this stuff. We want to debate the issues," Mr. Reid said. "I want to have a full, complete debate."
Mr. Reid said victims of gun violence deserve a vote on the Toomey-Manchin amendment and several others.
Asked if he was optimistic about passage, Mr. Manchin said, "I'm always optimistic."
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.