WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin so craved a pro-gun-rights Republican as a partner for a bill to expand background checks on gun buyers that he took to buttonholing senators on the in-house subway that ferries them from their offices to the Capitol, making his pitch while his colleagues were trapped with him in the tiny car.
Repeatedly rebuffed, Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat, decided to call on his friend Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican known almost exclusively for his conservative fiscal positions. On a recent Amtrak trip from New York to Washington, D.C., where they happened to meet, Toomey agreed to listen.
On Wednesday the two gun owners, long favorites of the National Rifle Association (NRA), united in a last-ditch effort on a background-check compromise that opened the door to a rare congressional consideration of gun-law changes, beginning Thursday. While their agreement ensures only that the measure will reach the Senate floor for debate, it rescued gun-law changes sought by President Obama and gun-control groups from an early defeat.
Manchin and Toomey said they had put together a bipartisan deal that would expand background checks to cover unlicensed dealers at gun shows and all online sales. It would also maintain record-keeping provisions that law-enforcement officials find essential in tracking guns used in crimes but that some Republicans had balked at. Unlike the initial Democratic plan, it does not cover private sales involving relatives and neighbors.
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The bill also enhances some gun rights. For instance, the senators’ amendment would require states to recognize other states’ concealed-carry permits and would allow for interstate travel laws for sportsmen who do not have a license in the state they are visiting. It would also allow active members of the military to buy firearms in their home states, which is now banned. In addition, sellers would be shielded from lawsuits if a buyer passed a check but later used a firearm in a crime.
For Toomey, toiling in a swing state full of suburban women who often favor gun-safety legislation, a relatively modest measure to expand background checks seemed politically viable and in need of a Republican imprimatur. Gun legislation was “not something I sought,” he said.
“I’ve got to tell you, candidly, I don’t consider criminal-background checks gun control,” said Toomey, who led the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth after a stint in the House.
He acknowledged it was hard to take heat from fellow conservatives over his reach across the aisle. “There have been people who’ve called the office expressing disappointment.” But some have expressed support, too, he said.
For Manchin, whose signature campaign ad in 2010 featured him shooting environmental legislation with a hunting rifle, Toomey represented his best hope of a credible Republican ally who may be able to bring along fellow conservatives to the bill.
“I wanted to make sure whoever I was with came from a gun culture such as mine,” said Manchin, who opposes most gun-control legislation but wants to close background-check loopholes. “I just appreciate Pat so much for being able to get there.” Manchin, who cried during a meeting with relatives of victims of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., has been lauded by gun-control advocates for his help.
The gun bill is schedule to receive its first procedural vote in the Senate on Thursday.
In the Republican-run House, leaders have shown little enthusiasm for Obama’s ideas, making that chamber an even higher hurdle.
The compromise, which two weeks ago seemed elusive, is designed to pull in as many members from both parties as possible.
Showing that the fight was far from over, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization opposes the Manchin-Toomey accord. The group, which has fought most of Obama’s gun proposals and claims nearly 5 million members, said the focus should be on improving the nation’s mental-health system and sources of violence, such as gangs.
“Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the NRA said.
In a letter to senators late Wednesday, NRA lobbyist Chris Cox warned that the organization would include lawmakers’ votes on the Manchin-Toomey deal and other amendments it opposes in the candidate ratings it sends to members and supporters.
On a day when first lady Michelle Obama was visiting a violence-plagued high school in Chicago, the Obamas’ hometown, the NRA said, “President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers.”
Also criticizing the deal was conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who participated in a failed effort with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to reach a separate compromise. Coburn called the Manchin-Toomey effort a “good faith but unworkable plan” that “prioritizes collecting records over protecting citizens.”
The compromise was met with cautious optimism by Obama. “This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,” he said.
He added that the Senate proposal “does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress” and recognizes that some in both parties agree “we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.”
Many issues remain unresolved in the Senate proposal, chiefly how such new regulations would be enforced, and how law-enforcement officials would be able to easily tell the province of some guns. But the measure would close many of the loopholes in gun laws.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.