WASHINGTON -- In the clearest sign that Democrats are worried about the viability of President Barack Obama's comprehensive gun control package, leading lawmakers signaled on Monday that they will consider the president's gun control agenda in pieces rather than as a whole.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said his committee will take up four gun-related bills in a hearing on Thursday. The bills reflect the core components of the gun violence package proposed last month by the White House. They include a universal background checks bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a school safety bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a new gun trafficking statute sponsored by Leahy, and an assault weapons ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The choice to mark up Feinstein's bill in committee was not easy, according to aides on the Hill. Congressional aides and outside groups carefully watching the legislation said they had anticipated the committee would put together a comprehensive package consisting of the three other legislative components. The committee would then pass that package to the Senate floor for consideration. Once there, lawmakers would consider adding the assault weapons ban as an amendment. Barring the unexpected, it would not muster the 60 votes needed for passage.
By marking up the assault weapons ban in committee, Leahy has chosen a different path. The bill likely has the support needed to pass in the committee. The only Democratic committee member who is a question mark is Leahy himself. But since the assault weapons ban likely doesn't have 60 votes in the Senate at large, Democratic leadership will have to ensure that it doesn't endanger the three other gun control components.
The consensus on how to do that was moving toward "a piecemeal approach," two aides involved in legislative strategy said. "You do them separately," explained one of those aides. "On the floor, maybe you put certain pieces together."
Those pieces, the aide added, would be the federal trafficking statute, mental health legislation and universal background checks.
But even on the less-controversial matter, legislative prospects aren't assured. Lawmakers and activists told The Huffington Post on Monday that negotiations over background check legislation, considered the most likely bill to pass, had stalled.
"I think we hit a snag, there is no doubt about it," said Jim Kessler, a former director of policy and research at Americans for Gun Safety and co-founder of the centrist-Democratic organization Third Way. "I know that there are real differences between the parties on this. But it is definitely too early to throw in the towel. They agree on a lot. And there still may be some way to figure it out."
At issue is record-keeping. Currently, when a background check is administered for a firearm purchase, the record of the check is destroyed, but the record of the sale is kept, usually by the retailer. Under a bill that expands background checks to include private purchases, the question becomes what to do about the sales record.
Democrats insist the record must be kept. Without it, the purpose of expanding background checks becomes moot, they argued. There would be no way to show or prove that a transaction took place. In addition, it would make a federal trafficking statute toothless, making it impossible to charge someone for the straw purchase of guns on behalf of those prohibited from owning them.
But Republicans negotiating over the background check legislation are wary of creating anything resembling a federal database. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported, the main Republican negotiator on the bill, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), opposes keeping a sales record for purchases that take place over the Internet, (a major method for gun purchasers in remote areas ).
Democrats have offered Coburn several options to circumvent the impasse, aides said. They've proposed having the manufacturer of the gun keep the sales record; having the seller of the gun keep the sales record; or having a retailer do the record-keeping as a third-party observer to the transaction.
"We are not committed of one idea of who should retain a record. We just want to make sure there is a record," said an aide to a lawmaker working on the bill. "We are flexible about who maintains that record. ... But [the record] is the only way that makes the background check requirement enforceable."
Coburn's office declined to comment.
Senate Democrats could, theoretically, work around Coburn in hopes of finding five other Republicans to back the bill. But the other Republican negotiator, Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) has an F rating from the NRA, and likely wouldn't persuade Republican colleagues to follow his position. A spokesman for Kirk did not return a request for comment about his position on the bill.
"There is real value to having Coburn involved in background check legislation," said Kessler. "It is another A-rated senator, in this case a Republican. He would bring other votes with him. So there is real utility to having Coburn involved. And he has negotiated in good faith so far."