By Gregory Korte and Jackie Kucinich, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - For the first time in years, gun-control advocates mayhave some legislative victories to celebrate over the next few days asthe Senate appears to have cleared key hurdles to bring a broad packageof new gun rules to the floor.
They are still a long way from becoming law.
Nearlyfour months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and two decadessince President Clinton signed the last major gun-control law, theSenate is poised to take up a gun bill that would expand backgroundchecks, beef up a national criminal database and crack down on strawpurchases of firearms.
The Senate first has to clear a 60-votethreshold to end a threatened filibuster by conservative Republicans,but that seemed more likely Wednesday after a bipartisan deal wasannounced to expand background checks for most commercial gun sales.
Whilehe said he wished the Senate background check deal covered moretransactions, President Obama said the deal brokered by Sens. JoeManchin, D-W.Va. and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. represents "welcome and significant bipartisan progress."
TheManchin-Toomey amendment is more friendly to gun buyers than Obama'sproposal, closing loopholes for gun shows and Internet purchases butexempting most private transactions. In some areas, it would expand gunrights, allowing for easier transport of guns across state lines andaccepting a state concealed-carry permit in lieu of a background check.
"Westrengthen rights of law-abiding gun owners," Manchin said, explainingthat the background checks are designed "to keep people from having gunswho shouldn't have them."
"I don't consider criminalbackground checks to be gun control. It's just common sense," Toomeysaid. "If you pass ... you get to buy a gun. It's the people who failthat we don't want having guns."
TheBrady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence expressed measured enthusiasm."There is still a long road ahead and this bipartisan bill gives usreason to be optimistic," Brady Campaign President Dan Gross said.
TheNational Rifle Association remains opposed to any expansion ofbackground checks, saying they won't prevent another school shooting.But spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the private sale exemption was a"positive development."
The NRA did offer support for asecond agreement Wednesday, worked out by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.,and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to strengthen the penalties for firearmtrafficking and for people who buy guns for those banned from owningthem.
Even Manchinand Toomey said their own amendment didn't guarantee they would vote infavor of the bill, depending on what other language is included onissues like banning assault weapons or limiting the capacity ofammunition magazines - two issues currently not in the bill beingoffered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Sen.Tom Coburn, R-Okla. - whom Manchin and Toomey touted as giving"invaluable" input - said he didn't see how any background-checkprovision could be effective. And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said "expanding background checks is about the most false sense of security you could provide to anybody."
But the first debate Thursday will be thethreatened filibuster led by Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz ofTexas and Mike Lee of Utah. Lee said a filibuster would allow "threemore days to assess how the bill would impact the rights of law-abidingcitizens."
"This debate is not just about magazine clipsand pistol grips," he said on the Senate floor. "It's about the purposeof the Second Amendment." Such far-reaching legislation should besubjected to a 60-vote majority to ensure bipartisan consensus, he said.
Itwas not clear how many senators would vote to block the bill. Outsidethe Senate chamber Wednesday, senator after senator told reporters theywere still reviewing the language. "Sounds very promising," said Sen.Susan Collins, R-Maine. "We'll see," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. whenasked whether he would vote to bring the bill to the floor for debate.
Andeven if Reid has the votes to overcome a filibuster, it is not clearwhat parts of the president's gun agenda have enough votes to pass theSenate - let alone the Republican-controlled House. House Speaker JohnBoehner, R-Ohio, declined to comment on the Senate compromise Wednesday,or whether it would get a vote in the House.
Boehner has saidthe House will not take up any gun legislation until the Senate passes abill. "I want to wait and see what actually passes over in the Senate,"he said. "I've made it clear: If the Senate passes a bill, the Housewill review it."
And the Senate bill will take time. Reid saidWednesday, "We're going to have amendments on this. Some of them aregoing to take a little bit of time. We're not going to finish the billthis week. I don't know if we'll finish it next week. But that doesn'treally matter. Are we going to legislate?"
Still, supporters of gun control said they were asoptimistic as they've been at any time since the Dec. 14 shootingdeaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School inNewtown, Conn.
With the families of Sandy Hook victimscrying in the Senate gallery, Connecticut's two Democratic senatorsspent the day eulogizing the 6- and 7-year-old victims killed by a loneshooter with a .223-caliber rifle and a 30-shot magazine.
"Howcan you not stop assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that wereintegral to that tragedy in Newtown?" Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.,said. The Manchin-Toomey deal was "a promising and profoundlyconstructive turning point in this process" that makes a vote much morelikely.