Senators moving forward on background checks without Tom Coburn

Senators who are negotiating over a proposal to expand the universal background check system have decided for the time being to stop trying to reach a deal with GOP Senator Tom Coburn, in the belief that his opposition to a key provision has become insurmountable, according to a source familiar with ongoing talks.

Instead, Senator Chuck Schumer — who had been a leader of talks on the issue — will introduce a much stronger version of the proposal that contains none of the concessions Senators had made to win Coburn over, the source says. And Schumer will step up outreach to other Republican Senators — among them John McCain and Susan Collins — to win support for the bill.

The maneuvering is a reminder of the difficulties Democrats face in getting Republican support for universal background checks. But it also underscores that Dems firmly believe that this proposal can, ultimately, win enough Republican Senators to break any GOP filibuster. Because of that belief, Dems will not compromise away the heart of the background check proposal — the need to keep records on private sales for enforcement purposes, which Coburn had objected to.

Originally, the plan by the group — which includes Schumer, and Senators Joe Manchin and Mark Kirk — was to submit a background check bill to the Judiciary Committee for mark-up that contained a number of concessions designed to win the support of Coburn, a staunch “gun rights” advocate whose backing would make it easier to get more Republicans to buck the NRA and support it. Those concessions modified a tougher bill Schumer had originally introduced in 2011, in order to cater to concerns held by Coburn and Manchin. The latter Senator supports the resulting compromise. But Coburn’s objections now appear impossible to overcome for now, leading Senators to revise this strategy. Instead, Dems will introduce the original, tougher Schumer bill, while Senators search for more Republican support for the compromise.

“Senator Schumer is not prepared to negotiate away the record-keeping requirement in its entirety, lest it make the law unenforceable,” the source tells me. Schumer will now join Senators Kirk and Manchin in directly wooing other Republicans. These Senators have not given up entirely on winning over Coburn, and are only introducing the tougher provision as a kind of placeholder — they are willing to restore the concessions they’ve made thus far if necessary to win over Coburn or other Republicans.

Though the lack of Coburn’s support certainly makes it more difficult to get the expanded background check passed, Dems remain optimistic that a handful of other Republican Senators can we won over. After all, this provision has overwhelming public support — including among Republicans. What’s more, the fact that Coburn came so close to supporting the bill is being taken as a sign of optimism — he has an “A” rating from the NRA, yet even he was willing to support the basic policy goal of a near-universal background check. That has left Dems hopeful that more moderate Republicans will be gettable. Stay tuned.

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UPDATE: It’s being reported that Senators Kirk and Manchin are also pulling out of the talks. But that’s not what’s happening. Rather, those Senators do not support the tougher plan that Schumer is introducing as a placeholder. They still support the compromise that the group has negotiated — and which Schumer is willing to return to if Republicans can be won over to it. Also: I’ve edited the above post for clarity.

UPDATE II: One more clarifying point. There are two proposals in play. The first one is a provisional compromise that’s been negotiated by the bipartisan group of Senators (which Coburn still cannot support). This compromise, which doesn’t exist in bill form yet, is generally supported by Manchin and Kirk. Then there’s the original, stricter 2011 Schumer proposal. This latter bill is being introduced. It is not supported by Manchin and Kirk. But that doesn’t have much significance, because that bill is only being introduced now as a placeholder. Dems are willing to return to the emerging compromise if Republicans will support it.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | March 6, 2013