WASHINGTON -- The Senate cleared the way Thursday for a contentious and protracted floor debate that will pit Second Amendment absolutists against gun control advocates over the coming weeks.
The 68-31 vote broke a filibuster threatened by pro-gun Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The vote margin, well beyond the 60 needed, provided momentum to the effort but might not stop conservatives from using other procedural moves to stall voting.
Pennsylvania's two senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, voted to begin the debate.
"Our hard work starts now," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said immediately after the procedural vote. "We're going to have to vote on assault weapons. Some people love it, some people hate it, but we're going to have to vote on it. We're also going to have to vote on the size of clips on magazines."
First up, though, will be a proposal by Mr. Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to close a loophole that currently allows gun buyers to bypass background checks for purchases made over the Internet or at gun shows. Debate on the amendment is expected Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Blumental, D-Conn., said the Toomey-Manchin plan doesn't go far enough but that it's a start.
"It will help us achieve a larger bipartisan compromise because background checks are only one part of a comprehensive strategy," Mr. Blumenthal said
That's the fear of conservatives who worry that expanded background checks will lead to other more intrusive restrictions on gun ownership.
Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas voted against proceeding to the bill, saying that government should focus on enforcing existing laws and that the legislation being proposed is a symbolic gesture rather than a proposal for substantive change.
"Rather than put on a show and pat ourselves on the back and call it a day, let's do something good to make sure we've done everything in our human capacity" to prevent another mass shooting like the one in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Cornyn said, referring to the massacre in which 20 first-graders and six educators were killed.
Earlier, Mr. Blumenthal displayed photos of several Newtown victims on the Senate floor as he implored colleagues to allow a vote.
"The world has watched Newtown and families of Newtown and it has watched Connecticut, and now the world is watching the United States Senate. It is watching the Senate to see whether democracy works," he said. "What people in Connecticut and across the country have said to their senators is, we must do something about gun violence."
Conservative push-back is certain, and the National Rifle Association, a major campaign financier, will be watching.
"I hope that no one is going to say, 'I'm going to try to filibuster every amendment that's offered.' That defeats the whole purpose of why we're here," Mr. Reid said. "We can't allow that to happen. It would just be such a shame if that in fact did happen."
Across the Capitol, battle lines already are being drawn.
"We want to have a bill that is the boldest common denominator that we can pass that reduces gun violence in our country," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority leader, told reporters at her weekly briefing.
But Republican Reps. Paul Brown of Georgia and Paul Stockman of Texas are leading an effort to keep background check legislation and other gun control legislation from reaching the House floor.
"The principle that no person can purchase or sell a firearm without first receiving government permission transforms the Second Amendment from a right that should be protected by the government into a privilege granted by the government," Mr. Brown and Mr. Stockman wrote in a letter they are circulating to other members to collect signatures before sending it to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
They said background checks won't help because criminal shooters typically steal firearms or obtain them through straw purchasing, or buying guns for someone else, which is already illegal. They also are concerned that background checks will lead to creation of a federal gun registry -- something Democrats say won't happen.
Throughout the week, relatives of Sandy Hook victims visited Washington to put a human face on the need to reduce gun violence. They told lawmakers about children who loved sports, who struggled to learn to read, and who saved chore money to buy Christmas presents for a teacher who died in the shooting.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., brought their stories to the Senate floor a few at a time Wednesday and Thursday as he asked his colleagues to do everything they can to reduce gun violence.mobilehome - homepage - breaking - electionspresident
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published April 11, 2013 4:15 AM