WASHINGTON -- The signature gun control bill being pushed by President Barack Obama is likely to suffer a setback, as congressional aides and outside advocates signaled Tuesday that they no longer expect a chief Republican lawmaker to lend his support.
Legislation that would expand the background check system for gun sales is due to be filed Wednesday at 5 p.m. For weeks, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have been working on the language of the bill to secure the support of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). As of Tuesday afternoon, however, aides said they expected Coburn, who has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, would decline to sign as a co-sponsor, leaving Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and his "F" rating as the main Republican face of the bill.
"We are at that point where he has to shit or get off the pot," said a Senate Democratic aide, who predicted that Coburn would, in the end, get off the pot.
"I don’t think Coburn is going to be on the initial bill," conceded Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist-Democratic organization Third Way and a former director of policy and research at Americans for Gun Safety.
The main sticking point for Coburn has been the same for weeks: if Democrats are going to demand that records of private gun sales be kept -- whether by an individual gun seller, the manufacturer, or a third party -- then no deal. Democrats say that keeping records of private sales is crucial to enforcing the background check system, particularly because it would help police trace back the history of a gun used in a crime. It appears this may be the provision negotiators couldn't work out.
Coburn remained coy on Tuesday, giving no indication that he would bail on the package. Asked by reporters if he and other principal backers of the bill were close to a deal, Coburn said, “I think so. We'll have to wait and see. See if there's a way to get there.” Another Senate Democratic aide signaled that negotiations weren't officially over, saying that the "lines of communication would be kept open until tomorrow."
But aides and activists working on the bill are already gaming out a strategy for passage without the Oklahoma senator on the list of cosponsors. They expect Schumer to file his long-standing background check bill on Wednesday night so lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee have something to mark up on Thursday. That bill will serve as a placeholder for future legislation, which will materialize either in the committee or on the Senate floor.
The question now facing Kessler and others is how far they can push the bill's language without endangering its passage. Coburn's absence will likely make things more difficult -- the bill was all but assured to pass through the Senate with his support -- but it is hardly a death knell.
Democratic aides said that other Republican senators have expressed support for the bill but haven't gone public out of respect for Coburn's role. The assumption that they will come forward now is premised on the idea that Schumer will keep the concessions Coburn secured in the final version.
"If he were to back away now, I think we are in a good position to go to other Republicans and say, 'Look, we have 95 percent agreement with Coburn,'" said one of the Democratic Senate aides.
Still, picking up enough votes to pass the bill is another story. Kessler and others remained bullish on the prospects of passage, noting that the two sides were in agreement on provisions to expand background checks for virtually all gun purchases and an accompanying "enforcement mechanism" to document that a sale had taken place.
Manchin provided some specifics on the bill's components on Tuesday, indicating that people who sell guns to close relatives would be exempt from background checks and states would be given flexibility to go further than the bill if they chose to do so.
"This is a base that says basically, if there is a gun that's being sold, that there should be a criminal background check, with the exclusion of families, immediate families,” Manchin told reporters.
Kessler said that Democrats were willing to bend on their demand that a sales record be kept for every purchase, allowing record-keeping to be optional for certain private sellers. But one of the aforementioned Senate aides said that Schumer and others were still pushing for universal record-keeping to remain in the bill, and confirmed that that was the primary obstacle in reaching a deal with Coburn.
"Everybody wants as much record-keeping you can get, but [records on] stranger-to-stranger sales is what's important," said Kessler. "There are two types of gun bills. There is the perfect bill and the one that can pass."