WASHINGTON — As Senate Democrats approach a key decision on gun legislation, relatives of victims of the Connecticut school shootings mounted a face-to-face lobbying effort Tuesday in hopes of turning around enough Republicans to gain a Senate floor vote on meaningful gun restrictions.
Before meeting privately with senators at the Capitol, the families had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden at his residence at the Naval Observatory, according to an administration official. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.
President Barack Obama's gun-control proposals have hit opposition from the National Rifle Association and are struggling in Congress, nearly four months after the issue was catapulted into the national arena by December's slaying of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Conn.
Conservatives say they will use procedural tactics to try preventing the Senate from even considering firearms restrictions, headlined by background checks for more gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Democrats criticized Republicans anew for the tactics, which will take a hard-to-achieve 60 votes to overcome in the 100-member Senate. Democratic leader Harry Reid stood on the Senate floor before a poster-sized photo of a white picket fence with 26 slats, each bearing the name of a Newtown victim.
"We have a responsibility to safeguard these little kids," said Reid, D-Nev. "And unless we do something more than what's the law today, we have failed."
In a hopeful sign for Democrats, at least five GOP senators have indicated a willingness to oppose the conservatives' efforts to block the gun debate.
Sixty votes will be needed to head off the conservative stalling tactics. There are 53 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents, though it remains unclear whether any moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states might support the conservative effort.
"The American people ought to see where everybody stands on this," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said he wants the debate to proceed. Expressing similar sentiments have been GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
In a written statement, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a leader of the effort to block the gun debate, said that effort would prevent Obama from rushing the legislation through Congress "because he knows that as Americans begin to find out what is in the bill, they will oppose it."
The administration was continuing its efforts to pressure Republicans, with Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder making remarks Tuesday at the White House, joined by law enforcement officials.
On Monday, Obama pressed the issue at the University of Hartford, just 50 miles from Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the killings occurred.
"If you want the people you send to Washington to have just an iota of the courage that the educators at Sandy Hook showed when danger arrived on their doorstep, then we're all going to have to stand up," the president said.
Democrats were holding a lunchtime meeting Tuesday to assess whether Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., had reached an acceptable compromise — or had a realistic chance of getting one — with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Party leaders were giving Manchin until later Tuesday to complete the talks, and a decision by Democrats seemed likely in the next couple of days.
An agreement between the two senators, both among the more conservative members of their parties, would boost efforts to expand background checks because it could attract bipartisan support. Abandoning those negotiations would put Democrats in a difficult position, making it hard for them to push a measure through the Senate and severely damaging Obama's gun control drive.
In a preview of the Senate's debate, 13 conservative Republicans delivered a letter Monday to Reid. They promised to try blocking lawmakers from beginning to consider the measure, a procedural move that takes 60 votes to curtail, a difficult hurdle in the 100-member chamber.
The conservatives said the Democratic effort would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms, citing "history's lesson that government cannot be in all places at all times, and history's warning about the oppression of a government that tries."
Georgia's Isakson said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning" that "the issue on background checks is how far they go and whether they violate rights of privacy." But he also said he believes the issue "deserves a vote up or down" in the Senate.
Reid could try beginning Senate debate on legislation that has already been approved by the Judiciary Committee. It would extend the background check requirement to nearly all gun purchases, strengthen laws against illegal firearms purchases and modestly boost aid for school safety.
If Reid does that, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will join conservatives' efforts to prevent the measure from being debated, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.
In hopes of enhancing the prospects for Senate approval, Reid has been hoping a bipartisan deal could be struck.
Manchin has been hoping for a deal with Toomey that would expand the requirement to sales at gun shows and online while exempting other transactions, such as those between relatives and those involving private, face-to-face purchases.
Currently, federal background checks are required for sales by licensed gun dealers but not for other transactions. The system is aimed at preventing criminals, people with severe mental health problems and others from getting firearms.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has also continued working for a bipartisan deal. Kirk, though, is considered too moderate to bring other GOP senators with him.