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WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 68 to 31 Thursday to begin debating legislation to curb gun violence, launching what many expect will be weeks of deliberations on the most significant proposals to overhaul the nation’s gun laws in two decades.

As relatives of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., watched from the balcony, 16 Republicans joined with 52 members of the Senate Democratic coalition on a procedural motion to proceed with debate. Two Democrats joined 29 Republicans in opposing the motion.

“The hard work starts now,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote. Earlier, he implored his colleagues to support debating the measure: “Whichever side you are on, we ought to be able to agree to engage in a thoughtful debate about these measures.”

Debate will begin next week, when Reid said he will move to vote on a bipartisan agreement to extend the current background-check requirements to include any sale that takes place at a gun show or that is advertised in print or online.

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President Obama called the Newtown families after Thursday’s vote, according to White House aides. The president’s political apparatus, Organizing for Action, also sent an email to supporters seeking new donations and urging them to keep pressure on lawmakers. “There is still work to be done,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “This was only, while important, a step in the right direction.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., billed the vote as a victory over the National Rifle Association (NRA), which urged lawmakers to block debate, and credited Newtown families for helping to tip the balance.

“The only reason we are turning the page is because of you,” Schumer told Newtown families who joined him at a news conference. “You spoke to Congress. You spoke to the American people.”

Several Republicans said they will continue opposing the legislation.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, called the bill under consideration “a symbolic gesture” and urged Congress to focus instead on boosting federal funding for mental-health programs. “We need to make sure that the mentally ill are getting the help they need, not guns,” he said.

The 16 Republicans who voted to proceed included Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, an influential trio on several policy issues. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also voted to proceed but said he’s not a guaranteed “yes” on final passage.

The two red-state Democrats who voted against proceeding, Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, face difficult re-election prospects in 2014.

Other Democrats facing difficult re-elections, including Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, voted to debate the measure but haven’t said whether they’ll support the overall package.

The agreement on background checks would exempt most private firearms transfers, a key concession expected to help the proposal earn bipartisan support.

The proposal also would permit gun dealers to sell firearms across state lines, and gun owners with state-issued permits to carry concealed weapons would be allowed to take their firearms through states that don’t allow concealed weapons.

Other proposed changes will come from members of both parties, including Democratic proposals to ban military-style assault rifles and limit the size of ammunition magazines; both of those are expected to fail.

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