WASHINGTON – Compromise legislation to expand mandatory background checks for gun sales -- a key element of the federal response to the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. – is widely expected to fail Wednesday afternoon in the US Senate.
The inability of President Obama and Democratic leaders to round up 60 votes in favor of enhanced background checks would deal a striking defeat to a major initiative of the president’s second term. The legislation is anticipated to fall short despite numerous pleas and trips to Washington by families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims, whose children were murdered five months ago by a lone gunman with a semi-automatic assault rifle.
The Senate is planning to vote on Wednesday afternoon on nine proposed amendments to a gun control bill. The centerpiece has been a compromise – forged between senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania – to expand background checks for gun buyers.
But despite the bipartisan negotiations, a flurry of statements from senators signaling they would vote no – the latest on Wednesday morning from Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican from New Hampshire – have made it clear to supporters that, without some senators changing their minds, they are not likely to have the votes.
“We will not get the votes today,” Manchin told NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell. His office later clarified that the senator “remains optimistic and hopeful.”
The gun debate has been marked by intense lobbying on both sides, big-spending influence campaigns targeting individual senators, and some vitriolic attacks, particularly by some groups opposed to firearms restrictions.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, this morning criticized the president for using the Newtown, Conn., families “as props.”
“When I see the father and the mothers and them testifying — and I know they’re coming voluntarily, and they want to come and be part of this debate — but it still saddens me just to see them, and I think that in some cases the president has used them as props,” Paul said at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “And that disappoints me.”
Paul said the legislation being voted on today would not have prevented the Sandy Hook shootings, and he criticized the vote as being mostly for show.
“A lot of things in Washington are window dressing, it’s a dog and pony show, it’s a parade, it’s theatrics ,it’s histrionics, all to show people that something bad happened — which it did. Something terribly tragic happened,” he said.
But, he added, “None of the proposals really would have addressed the tragedy.”
Groups beyond the National Rifle Association, the traditional representative of the gun lobby, have played a major role in the debate. The National Association for Gun Rights used email alerts, online videos, and a Facebook page to convey mocking imagery that targeted individual senators.
In a series of Facebook posts, the group showed Obama as a puppeteer, controlling the strings of Toomey. Stamped in red ink is, “Toomey Sold Out Your Gun Rights.”
The gun rights group similarly depicted all 16 Republicans who voted last week to prevent a GOP filibuster and move forward on the gun legislation debate. The 16 also are shown with their faces on sticks, tagged by Facebook users with unfriendly names. Senator Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, is “Socialist.” Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, is “communist #9.” Senator John Hoeven, of South Dakota, is “Judas Bastard.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, is “liberal [expletive] 1” while Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, is “liberal [expletive] 2.”
The National Association for Gun Rights did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although Paul’s name has been used in fundraising letters by the National Association for Gun Rights, and Paul has ties to some officials in the group, he distanced himself from the organization today, saying, “I don’t have a direct connection.”
“I don’t always agree with every tactic of every group out there,” Paul said at the breakfast Wednesday. “I don’t agree with all of them all the time, but I am on the side of protecting the Second Amendment and believe it is just as important as the rest of the Bill of Rights.”
Polls show that nearly 90 percent of Americans support a strong system of background checks for gun purchases. But the looming failure of gun-control legislation illustrates how vocal minorities are exerting strong influence on congressional debates by targeting individual senators with outside pressure, channeled through Internet organizing.
Some of that organizing directly targets senators who seek compromise.
“NO DEALS, NO GUN CONTROL,” the National Association for Gun Rights blasts on its website.
Few have experienced as much heat as Collins, a Maine Republican who has built a reputation for being moderate and open to compromise. A host of groups in recent days have taken out ads in Maine trying to win her over, including groups supporting gun-control legislation.
Organizing for Action, an offshoot of President Obama’s campaign network, had an ad Friday on the Bangor Daily News website with this message: “Tell Senator Collins: It’s time to close background check loopholes.” That ad came a day after a full-page ad from the National Rifle Association that asked, “Will Obama’s gun control proposals actually work? His own experts say, ‘No.’”
The group on Monday posted a doctored and unflattering photo of Collins with her eyes bulging as if she were a zombie. Within an hour, 5,413 people liked it on Facebook and 490 people had commented on it.
Lobbying efforts are continuing today, in the leadup to the vote. The Democratic National Committee was blasting emails targeting 10 Republicans, encouraging constituents to contact them and convince them to change their mind.
“This is our chance to honor the victims of Newtown -- six adults and 20 children -- and all the families that have been torn apart by gun violence,” the email read. “But Republicans in the Senate are planning a filibuster to block the vote.’’
Another group, Moms Demand Action, were holding a “Stroller Jam,” strolling their children to the Senate buildings and encouraging senators to vote for gun control legislation.
The group earlier in the week took out ads that feature two young girls sitting with legs crossed on the floor of a school library, one holding Little Red Riding Hood, another with a large assault rifle. “One is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one,” it reads. In smaller print, it says, “We keep ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ out of schools because of the bottle of wine in her basket. Why not assault weapons?”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.