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GOP senators signal possible breakthrough on gun bill

Jonathan Weisman,Jennifer Steinhauer

WASHINGTON -- Several Senate Republicans on Tuesday came out publicly against filibustering the first major gun control legislation since 1993 before it is even brought up for debate on the Senate floor, as advocates inched toward breaking a conservative blockade of the measure.

With backers of new gun safety laws increasingly optimistic that they can corral the 60 votes necessary to begin consideration of the measure, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said he would schedule a showdown vote for Thursday. His comments came as lobbying on gun control stepped up on Capitol Hill, with the families of children killed in Newtown, Conn., four months ago fanning out across the Senate to personally appeal to lawmakers to vote "yes."

"We're moving forward on this bill," said Reid, who earlier Tuesday evoked his own father's suicide by gunshot to implore consideration of the legislation, which would expand background checks for gun buyers, bolster school safety and crack down on people who purchase firearms for those who not entitled to own them. "The American people deserve a vote on this legislation."

Reid's decision to move ahead came after Senate Republicans began splintering on whether the bill should be allowed full consideration on the Senate floor. Four Republican senators -- Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- said Tuesday that they would support a procedural motion to formally take up the gun legislation for debate and amendments. Other Republicans indicated that they were inclined to allow debate, joining Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"This is obviously an important issue," Ayotte said. "We have a variety of views, and we should have an open vote."

Isakson added: "There's not very much ambivalence on Capitol Hill about the gun issue. You're on one side or the other, so there's no reason not to go ahead and vote."

Thirteen senators, led by a core of younger conservatives, had vowed to try to block any legislation that they saw as infringing on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Should Democrats secure the 60 votes they need, the Senate would then begin what is almost certain to be an emotionally volatile debate on the measure. The dynamic would pit scores of Democrats who staunchly support new gun control measures against moderates from their own party, many of them up for re-election next year, who would rather not see the bill move forward, as well as Republicans poised to vote against any new bills to curb gun rights.

Senators in both parties said they hoped that Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., would continue to cobble together a deal that could appeal to a broader base of senators in both parties than the measure currently being considered.

Collins said she had spoken several times with Manchin and was pleased that the new language would exempt from background checks the sale or exchange of guns between family members. Under the measure, records of guns sales would be kept, but Collins said she was satisfied that those records could in no way be compiled into a national gun registry, a fear gun rights groups have been voicing.

Manchin said he would make an announcement about the state of negotiations by the end of the day Tuesday.

"For anyone who talks about filibuster, they're getting everything they asked for," Manchin said, calling the filibuster threat misguided.

Advocates of a filibuster were not yielding, either to their colleagues, to President Barack Obama, who has been rallying support for a straight yes-or-no vote, or to the Newtown families making the same appeal.

"I took an oath to uphold the Constitution," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., excoriated Obama for bringing the parents of the Newtown victims to Washington aboard Air Force One on Monday evening.

"To me that's so unfair of the administration to put them into that position when this has nothing to do with them and they know that," he said. "It's using someone's emotions, someone's tragedy to their advantage, and I think it's morally wrong."

At this point, advocates of the gun bill appear on the edge of the 60 votes they will need to break a filibuster, but it is close.

Many Republicans -- and some Democrats -- appeared solidly on the fence over whether to let the bill proceed.

"I want to see what's in the bill," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "If it is an infringement on Second Amendment rights, many of us would want to block it."

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is up for re-election in 2014, said he too was waiting to hear more. In his state, he said, "We like our guns."


By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JENNIFER STEINHAUER
The New York Times