All Eyes on Toomey-Manchin Amendment as Reid's Gun Bill Advances

The 68-31 cloture vote this morning began consideration of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013, which was introduced March 21 and cobbles together a handful of gun-control bills from the 113th Congress: Sen. Pat Leahy's (D-Vt.) firearms trafficking bill, Mark Warner's (D-Va.) and Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) "campus safety enhancements," and Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) universal background checks.

Even though the National Rifle Association was scoring today's cloture vote, a break with tradition for the NRA on a procedural vote, the more controversial aspect of the gun-control package has yet to come to the floor as an amendment -- and will be scored as well.

After the cloture vote on Reid's package, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) wrapped up the language of their Public Safety And Second Amendment Rights Protection Act.

Reid reiterated his promise that it would be the first amendment to his bill offered on the floor next week. If passed, the language would replace Schumer's universal background checks in the final bill.

“It is important that the public and my colleagues in the Senate have ample opportunity to review and consider this important measure,” Toomey said. “Since a Senate vote is not expected until next week, everyone will have days to read and reflect on this legislation, and I welcome the their input.”

Toomey later released a letter from John C. Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general under George W. Bush and visiting scholar in constitutional law at the American Enterprise Institute, stating "the main provision of the Act poses no constitutional difficulties under the Second Amendment."

"The Act’s expansion of federal background checks should survive the first step of the Heller analysis," Yoo wrote. "...Indeed, the background check system would appear to be a vital mechanism to ensure that firearms sellers do not violate the terms of the national Gun Control Act. These restrictions have existed in federal law for 45 years and have not been constitutionally invalidated by the courts."

The bill says it will be offered as an amendment by Manchin for himself, Toomey, Schumer and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

“I encourage all West Virginians, gun owners, NRA members and all Americans interested in fixing our culture of mass violence to read this bill,” Manchin said. “This bill simply prevents criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing guns while protecting our Second Amendment rights. This bipartisan, commonsense compromise closes the existing background check system’s loopholes by including all advertised commercial sales. It also protects gun sellers’ and gun owners’ rights."

“Senator Toomey and I are confident that if people take the time to read the details of this important legislation, there will be nationwide support," he added.

But even Republicans under fire for voting to move debate forward on Reid's bill tried to tamp down criticism by saying they had no intention of voting for the Toomey-Manchin amendment.

Republicans voting yes were Sens. Toomey, Kirk, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Roger Wicker (Miss.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Dean Heller (Nev.), John Hoeven (N.D.), and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

Touting his pre-cloture NRA "A" rating, Alexander said he'll be a "no" vote on the compromise language.

“I’ll examine each amendment to determine whether it strengthens or infringes upon our Second Amendment rights,” Alexander said. “The Toomey-Manchin proposal to expand background checks in my opinion doesn’t meet that test and I will vote against it.”

Graham said he welcomes debate on the gun-control bill, "and you should too."

"I have my own legislation, supported by the NRA, which I want to bring forward in the Senate. My legislation would make a real difference in keeping guns out of the wrong hands," he said.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who voted against the procedural motion, said on a conference call this morning that "days and if not a few weeks" of debate are ahead.

"I'm looking at some amendments myself. I must admit, I'm a little bit pessimistic that a bill that is shaped in this way can be changed sufficiently to get my vote," Johanns said. "But having said that, we'll see what transpires in the next couple of weeks."

Johanns is pushing a bill with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to study the exposure of kids to violent video games before rushing into any legislation called a solution. "This notion that somehow this is going to solve anything by taking an action that violates the Constitution, that creates a national gun registry is just so misguided, and, quite honestly, it isn't going to stop anything," he said.

Some GOP senators had correctly prophesized that the filibuster organized by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), later joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others, wouldn't hold.

Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D) and Chris Murphy (D) said in a joint statement that the "brave families from Newtown who were in Washington this week truly turned the tide on this debate."

"Just four months ago, the conventional wisdom was that gun violence legislation would never go anywhere in the U.S. Congress. Today—thanks in large part to the courage and passion of the Newtown families—we have disproved this conventional wisdom," the senators said, dropping "Newtown" a total of five times in a 195-word statement.

Democrats Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) voted no on cloture for Reid's bill.

“I’ve long believed we don’t need more laws restricting the Second Amendment rights of Americans, we need to better enforce those on the books," Begich said. “…I voted today against the so-called cloture motion because I strongly disagree with many of the provisions of the anti-gun legislation currently on the Senate floor."

White House press secretary Jay Carney called today's vote "a first stage in an effort to get sensible, common-sense legislation that would reduce gun violence in America while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights signed into law."

"There is still work to be done… But we certainly welcome this development."

Over in the House, Democrats were crying foul at a grassroots effort gathering steam to encourage Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to invoke the Hastert Rule -- the majority of the majority -- to prevent the Senate gun bill from being brought to the floor of the lower chamber.

Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Steve Stockman (R-Texas) began circulating the letter among colleagues last week. A Stockman spokesman told PJM this afternoon that they're up to about 50 supporters.

The letter expresses "strong opposition to legislation requiring private sale background checks for firearms purchases."

"The so-called 'universal background check' system would be a violation of Constitutionally-guaranteed rights on an unprecedented scale. The principle that no person can purchase or sell a firearm without first receiving government permission transforms the Second Amendment from a 'right' that should be protected by the government into a privilege granted by the government," it continues.

"Under the precedents and traditions of the House, we would ask that no gun legislation be brought to the floor of the House unless it has the support of a majority of our caucus."