Sen. Joe Manchin could be President Barack Obama's best hope for a bipartisan gun package this year.
But he's running into headwinds on Capitol Hill.
Manchin -- along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- tried for weeks to broker a compromise with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), but that effort hit roadblocks. Manchin urged Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to keep an open mind, but no dice. And he tried to persuade Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to consider signing on as a prime sponsor but was quickly rebuffed.
Manchin's efforts are growing ever more critical as the battle over gun control hits the Senate floor as soon as next month. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a sweeping assault weapons ban opposed by the National Rifle Association, as well as a prohibition on high-capacity ammunition magazines. But those proposals stand little chance of becoming law.
In close contact with the NRA, the West Virginia Democrat and hunter is leading a bipartisan group crafting legislation to expand background checks on purchasers of firearms. The group is trying to lure at least one pro-NRA Republican in hopes that will open the floodgates for more. Support from the GOP will help determine how much backing the effort gets from red-state Democrats, who so far have been lukewarm.
Indeed, Manchin floated an idea to pro-NRA Sen. Mark Begich to combine the Alaska Democrat's bipartisan proposal modifying gun restrictions for the mentally ill with a new background check plan in an attempt to piece together a broader coalition.
Begich's response: Manchin needs to win over more Republican senators than just moderate Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.
"I know he would like to get a criminal background check completed," Begich said of Manchin. "His challenge is, and I wait for him to finish off his discussions, he needs to bring one or two A-rated NRA Republicans on board. With all due respect to Sen. Kirk, he's an F-rated. You need an A-rated."
It's the effort to more broadly expand background checks that could be the most significant gun control measure to pass a bitterly divided Senate -- if a bipartisan deal can first be reached. The central sticking point is whether records of gun sales or purchases must be retained by retailers.
Manchin, who calls himself an "eternal optimist," is working furiously to win over Republicans and believes he's making steady progress before he officially proposes a new bill, either with a small group of senators or with a bipartisan coalition. When a bill finally is unveiled and it hits the floor, Manchin is confident pro-gun senators will vote for it -- even if they decline to sign on for the moment.
"You've got to be bold enough to step to the front and do the right thing, and this is the right thing for America right now," Manchin said in an interview. "And it's one that's accepted from people who come from gun cultures."
Manchin, a lifelong NRA member, says he still has "good rapport" with the powerful gun lobby, even as he has spoken up for more expansive background checks and has questioned whether hunters need assault weapons. And he's still trying to persuade the group to support background checks -- or at the very least stay neutral, a posture that could bring along skeptical Republicans and some red-state Democrats.
"It's important for them to be comfortable and understand that it's not a threat at all," Manchin said of the NRA. "If anything, they could really be champions for us, to look at something that's responsible and reasonable."
NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said senators like Manchin who have been allied with the organization in the past don't have "more sway" with the group simply because of their previous records on the issue.
"That does not change our position or cause us to equivocate at all," Cox insisted.
But now the NRA looms large over both Manchin's efforts -- and Obama's gun control agenda.
Indeed, Manchin's push marks a twist with his relationship with the White House: In the run-up to his reelection bid last year, the former governor refused to say whether he'd vote for the president and declined to attend the Democratic National Convention. The two men barely spoke.
Despite the spate of deadly mass shootings across the country, including in Newtown, Conn., late last year, the influential gun lobby appears poised to derail virtually all of the president's gun control agenda, except for perhaps a couple of narrower measures.
If Manchin can't strike a deal on background checks, the most likely bill able to pass the Senate would focus on so-called gun-trafficking, which would expand sanctions on people who purchase firearms for others not allowed to possess them and provide $40 million for beefed-up school safety programs. Prospects for any gun control legislation in the GOP-led House are even grimmer.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have yet to decide how they will structure a gun control measure when it gets to the floor, but even liberal Democrats openly acknowledge that the assault weapons ban cannot overcome an expected filibuster.
That has led the White House and gun control groups to focus on enacting broader background checks, particularly for online sales and at gun shows, yet even that proposal won't pass unless a bipartisan deal is reached before it gets to the floor.
The Judiciary Committee approved Schumer's background checks bill last week. That measure lacks GOP support, but Manchin and the New York Democrat both say this is only a placeholder while the West Virginia Democrat searches for some GOP partners.
Manchin is still trying to get Coburn on board despite the two sides saying last week that their discussions had essentially stalled.
Manchin has also reached out to other Republicans, including Heller, Grassley, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and the two Arizona senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Yet he has run into resistance so far.
"I think I've come to the conclusion that it's a slippery slope, and it's going to lead to registration, and I'm not going to talk to anybody about a compromise," said Grassley, the top Judiciary Committee Republican.
Heller added that he "probably" wouldn't sign onto a background checks bill, though he held out hope a deal could be reached on the issue.
"As far as being the prime sponsor with Manchin, it's not going to happen," Heller said.
Flake said he wouldn't get behind "universal" background checks but said he's open to "strengthening" the system "particularly" in regard to mental health.
Moderate Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who voted for an extension of the assault weapons ban in 2004, is cautious about signing on to the Manchin-Schumer effort.
"I do believe there is an awful lot we can do to improve the background checks, but it has to be done carefully in order to not produce a national registry of guns," Collins said.
Manchin says as a gun owner, he wants to make clear that such an approach would not affect the ability of Americans to carry firearms, adding that he wants to eliminate the "paranoia" that's out there.
"Nobody is going to take my guns away and nobody is going to take your guns away -- that's not what anybody is trying to do," he said.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who like Begich will face voters next year, said he wants to "listen" to the "folks I represent" before making a decision.
McCain recently sounded an optimistic note that there would be a universal background checks bill, but he grew more qualified in his statements to reporters earlier this week.
"I'm always for background checks, the problem is in the details of it as to how long records are kept and who keeps them and who sees them and those are issues that continue to confront us," McCain said, adding that he's had "numerous conversations" with Manchin, Schumer and others on the issue. "I think there should be always be background checks that do not violate people's constitutional rights."
Coburn said he was still "hopeful" a deal could be worked out, as did Schumer in a recent interview.
"The problem is you have two polar opposites: You have the gun control groups and NRA and what the gun control groups want, the NRA doesn't want," Coburn said. "What the NRA wants, the gun control groups don't want."
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