The Senate took a crucial step toward passing its first piece of gun-control legislation since December's massacre in Newtown, Conn., moving a bill to crack down on "straw" purchases of firearms and gun trafficking out of committee.
The bill, which stiffens penalties for people who buy weapons for those ineligible to own firearms, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, 11 to 7, with Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa joining all the panel's 10 Democrats.
With Senator Grassley's support, the bill is tantalizingly close to the 60 votes needed to break a potential filibuster on the legislation. Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois have already signaled their support, and even deeply conservative members such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama expressed optimism Thursday that they could support the measure with relatively minor changes before it comes to the Senate floor.
But prospects remain murky for the rest of President Obama's gun-control agenda. While bipartisan talks continue over a measure to require universal background checks on all firearms sales, bills to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines look like a long shot to get to the 60-vote threshold.
To move the straw-purchasing bill forward, Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York merged their separate efforts and made several tweaks to meet Grassley’s approval.
It's unclear when the full Senate might take up the bill. Senators are expected to turn their attention to fiscal matters next week before adjourning for the two-week Easter break.
Passage in the Senate is key because House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio has signaled that his chamber will only take up gun legislation that can pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. A similar bill has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland.
The straw purchasing legislation was the only gun-control bill voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, leaving questions about the other gun-control priorities laid out by Mr. Obama after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown.
The proposal to require universal background checks, broadly considered the next-most likely bill to pass the Senate, is currently in a state of limbo. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York has offered a proposal to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but his discussions with key senators with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association – including Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia – broke down over record keeping for gun sales between private individuals. Senator Kirk, another Republican involved in the talks, also announced he could not support Senator Schumer’s bill at present.
Those talks will continue even as the committee returns to gun-control measures next week, including Schumer's bill, next week.
“We’re still working in a very aggressive, common sense way,” says Senator Manchin. “I’m still very optimistic. If there’s something that moves forward, I think it will be our bill.”