Even though polls show that a universal background-check system is supported by nine in 10 Americans, the president has been unable to translate popular support for the measures into legislative momentum on Capitol Hill.
But in a move that could draw other Republicans as well as Democrats from conservative states who have not yet backed Obama’s agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a key Democratic broker, has spent the past few days crafting the framework of a possible deal with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).
Manchin and Toomey are developing a measure to require background checks for all gun purchases except sales between close family members and some hunters, which addresses concerns of some conservatives, according to the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the talks.
Spokesmen for Manchin and Toomey said only that the senators are talking to many of their colleagues about gun legislation and could not confirm details of their discussions.
Toomey is usually a reliable conservative vote for Senate Republicans, but he faces reelection in a Democratic-leaning state in 2016. A new player in the months-long gun talks, he is one of several GOP senators who have said that they would be receptive to supporting an expanded background-check program if a bipartisan deal were to emerge. As a former House lawmaker, Toomey remains close to House Republicans who represent the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, some of whom have said that they are open to striking bipartisan compromises on gun legislation in part because support for new gun laws is strong in those areas of the state.
Manchin, a moderate Democrat with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, has been eager to strike a deal on gun-control legislation since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December that left 20 children and six educators dead in Newtown, Conn. He has spent months negotiating with Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) over details, but talks have stalled in recent weeks amid Coburn’s opposition to Schumer’s insistence on requiring gun owners to keep records of private gun sales. Despite the impasse, Schumer and Coburn have “kept the lines of communications open” in case a deal can be struck, one aide said.
With Coburn’s support waning and Kirk’s moderate blend of politics not seen as enough to bring along other Republican senators, Manchin has spent much of the two-week congressional recess seeking out other GOP supporters. Talks between Manchin and Toomey began in earnest Wednesday, and the two have swapped proposed drafts, aides said. Any formal announcement of a deal won’t come until Tuesday or Wednesday, when the men return to Washington and sort out remaining details in person, aides said.