The Senate is poised to take its first procedural vote on a gun control bill Thursday at 11 a.m. ET, marking the first congressional floor action on a piece of gun legislation since the December massacre in Newtown, Conn., claimed the lives of 20 small children and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The bill faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill, where 14 Republican senators have already threatened to filibuster any legislation that, in their view, jeopardizes the Second Amendment. If that filibuster threat materializes, 60 votes will be required to secure cloture and allow the debate to proceed.
Democrats are confident there are 60 votes, however, as up to a dozen Republicans have pledged to vote with Democrats to bust any filibuster, even though most of those Republicans, with the exception of Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., haven't pledged to vote for the gun bill itself.
The bill incorporates several proposals floated by President Obama in the wake of Newtown, including a mandatory background check system for gun purchases and stronger penalties for illegal gun trafficking. Left out of the bill were proposals to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines, both of which were dropped by Democrats to ease the passage of other, less controversial gun laws.
The filibuster threat was first raised by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who were quickly joined by a handful of GOP colleagues. In a letter circulated as recently as this week, the senators wrote, "We will oppose the motion to proceed on any legislation that will serve as a vehicle for any additional gun restrictions."
Wednesday, however, Cruz scheduled and then cancelled two press conferences about the gun bill, leaving some observers uncertain about the current status of the Republicans' filibuster threat.
Despite his scrapped press conferences, Cruz did find the time to appear on the Laura Ingraham show on Wednesday, where he seemed to double down on his filibuster threat: "In my view, for any legislation that is potentially infringing the Bill of Rights, taking away our constitutional protections, I think it should be a 60-vote threshold, and that's what I and a number of other senators are asking for is a 60-vote threshold."
If the Senate bill manages to clear Thursday's initial procedural hurdle, the legislation would still be subject to amendments. Republicans opposing the bill promise to offer as many amendments as possible, while taking as much time as allowed to debate those amendments, severely slowing the process down.
"We're going to have amendments on this," Reid said Wednesday. "Some of them are going to take a little bit of time. We're not going to finish the bill this week. I don't know if we'll finish it next week."
Proponents of stronger gun laws received an assist yesterday, when Sens. Toomey and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., announced a compromise on the issue of background checks, potentially smoothing over one of the biggest remaining points of contention between supporters and opponents of stronger gun laws.
Toomey, however, said on Wednesday that he sees "substantial numbers of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach."
"Of course they want to look at the specifics of the legislation," he said, "but there are definitely Republicans in the House who support this."
That compromise, according to Manchin and Toomey, would close the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows people to buy firearms at gun shows without passing a background check. It would also mandate a background check for online gun sales, but it provides exceptions to the background check requirement when a gun is transferred as a gift between family members or close friends.
Crucially, the compromise would assign responsibility for maintaining sales records to the gun dealers themselves, not the federal government - a step taken to calm fears among gun owners about the development of a national gun registry.
Announcing the compromise, which will be introduced as an amendment to Reid's bill, Toomey preemptively dismissed one objection that gun control opponents commonly raise against background checks, saying, "I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control. I think it's just common sense."
"If you pass a criminal background check you get to buy a gun. It's no problem," he said. "It's the people who fail a criminal or a mental health background check that we don't want having guns."
Still, he added, "I think it's too soon to know how people are going to vote on this."
President Obama commended the Manchin-Toomey compromise in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday, praising the " bipartisan agreement around commonsense background checks that will make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun."
"This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger," Mr. Obama said. "But the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress."
If and when the Senate ultimately passes a gun bill, it still will need to pass through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives - no small feat.
House Speaker John Boehner donned his poker face on Wednesday in reaction to the Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks. "It's one thing for two members to come to some agreement," he said, but "it doesn't substitute the will [of] the other 98 members, and so we'll wait and see what the Senate does."