WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservative senators from both political parties announced their support for expanding background checks for gun buyers, giving momentum to supporters of stronger restrictions, but it remains unclear if President Barack Obama can push significant gun controls through Congress.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced the pact Wednesday. The agreement between two of the most conservative members of each party was expected to make it even likelier that the Senate's initial vote Thursday to begin debating gun legislation would proceed, despite an effort by conservatives to block consideration of the measure.
Subjecting more firearms purchases to federal background checks has been the chief goal of Obama and gun control supporters, who promote the system as a way to prevent criminals and other potentially dangerous people from getting weapons.
Manchin cited the December massacre in Connecticut where 20 small children and six educators were murdered, propelling gun control to the top rank of national issues.
"Truly the events at Newtown changed us all," he said. "Americans on both sides of the debate can and must find common ground."
Despite the progress on a gun control bill, two major provisions in Obama's original gun control package — a ban on sales of military-style assault weapons and a limit on the size of ammunition magazines — are not even being discussed any more since they have no hope of being passed.
Wednesday's deal would expand the background checks to cover all commercial sales, such as on the Web and at gun shows, closing the so-called gun show loophole. Private transactions that are not for profit, such as those between relatives, would be exempt. Currently, the system only covers sales through licensed gun dealers.
Obama said in a written statement he wished parts of the bill were stronger but that it represents significant progress and if enacted would make it harder for dangerous people to obtain guns.
"It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence," he said.
Underscoring the difficulty proponents will have in passing the agreement, the National Rifle Association, the country's most powerful gun lobby, came out against 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 U.S. mental health system and combatting sources of violence like 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 organization said.
In a letter to senators late Wednesday, NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox warned that the organization would include lawmakers' votes on the deal and other amendments it opposes in the candidate ratings it sends to its members and supporters.
Conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn called the Manchin-Toomey effort a "good faith but unworkable plan" that "prioritizes collecting records over protecting citizens."
Any gun control measure would be a plus for Obama as he tries in his second term to build a legacy. Other measures he is working on include an immigration bill and a budget deal that will keep the U.S. from repeatedly lurching to financial crises.
Meanwhile, the Senate is ready for an opening vote on restricting guns as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid set a roll call vote for Thursday on starting consideration of the firearms legislation.
The background check deal makes it even likelier that Democrats will win enough Republican support to thwart an effort by conservatives and Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block consideration from even starting.
The administration was continuing its effort to pressure Congress on gun control on Wednesday as first lady Michelle Obama planned to visit a Chicago high school where authorities say 29 current or former students have been shot in the past year. Eight of them died.
The ultimate fate of gun legislation remains clouded by opposition from many Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Democratic led-Senate and Republican-run House. Many critics say the proposal would violate the U.S. Constitutional right to bear arms and burden law-abiding gun owners.
The agreement does contain provisions expanding firearms rights, and that concerns gun control supporters. Some restrictions on transporting guns across state lines would be eased, sellers would be shielded from lawsuits if the buyer passed a check but later used a firearm in a crime and gun dealers could conduct business in states where they don't live.
Amid the maneuvering, relatives of some of the Connecticut school shooting victims are lobbying to support gun curbs and Obama has been calling senators from both parties to push for the gun bill.
The National Rifle Association, the country's most powerful gun advocacy group, opposes Obama's effort and is urging its members— it claims nearly 5 million — to tell lawmakers of their opposition.
Counteracting that has been an effort by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, one of whose leaders is billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group said it will keep track of key gun-related congressional roll call votes and make the information available to voters and contributors, a tactic long used by the NRA and other groups.
In Connecticut on Wednesday, Bristol-based gunmaker PTR said in a statement on its website that it intends to leave the state after the governor signed into law new restrictions on weapons and large capacity magazines.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.