WASHINGTON -- Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin are crossing both state lines and party lines with talks on gun control measures that could include enhanced background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals and mentally ill people.
One Senate aide said the lines of communication are open, and other lawmakers are involved in similar bipartisan discussions, but there's no concrete deal.
Word of the bipartisan talks boosted hopes that the Pennsylvania Republican and West Virginia Democrat could broker a deal even as their colleagues prepare to take up the issue today in what promises to be a vigorous partisan debate.
One aide said the Toomey-Manchin talks include a provision to withhold federal grants from states that don't comply with federal gun laws. That piece appears to be in response to pre-emptive legislation introduced in Pennsylvania and several other states to prohibit enforcement of any new federal gun control measures.
Officials from the National Rifle Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The association has contributed to both senators' political campaigns and gave both an "A" rating for their votes on gun control issues.
The movement in Washington to restrict access to address gun control was driven by the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. After the shooting, Mr. Manchin said there's no reason any law-abiding citizen needs access to high-capacity assault-style weapons like the AR-15 used in the Newtown shooting.
"I will defend Second Amendment rights as long as I live. I believe so strongly in that, but I also believe there is a responsible, sensible way that we should be conducting ourselves," Mr. Manchin told reporters in a conference call in December.
Mr. Manchin is one of the most conservative Democrats in Washington, particularly when it comes to gun control issues. An enduring image of him comes from a campaign commercial in which he shot a bullet through a copy of the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Toomey is pro-gun but has not been a vocal supporter, preferring to expend his political capital on fiscal matters, where he has been influential.
His talks with Manchin coincided with increased pressure from groups including CeaseFirePa and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action fund, which has been running a television commercial in Pennsylvania to advocate for legislation that strikes a balance between gun rights and restrictions.
"Tell Sen. Toomey, 'Don't protect criminals. Vote to protect gun rights and our families with comprehensive background checks.' Demand action now," the commercial says.
The Senate debate over gun control is expected to begin in earnest Tuesday.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is headed to the University of Hartford to deliver his own message about gun control to a state still grieving over the December rampage that killed 20 children, six educators and the gunman's mother.