WASHINGTON (AP) - Democrats' most serious gun-control push in years cleared its first hurdle Thursday as the Senate voted to engage in debate on the proposal.
The 68-31 vote rebuffed an effort to keep debate from even starting, giving a small victory to President Barack Obama and his gun control allies. Four months after 20 first-graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed, relatives watching the vote from a gallery overlooking the Senate floor dabbed at tears and clasped hands.
Even so, few supporters of the legislation are confident of victory. Several weeks of emotional, unpredictable Senate debate lie ahead, and a mix of gun-rights amendments, opposition from the National Rifle Association and skepticism from House Republican leaders leave big questions about what will emerge from Congress. Foes of the proposed restrictions say they would penalize law-abiding citizens and do nothing to curb gun violence.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., finish their announcement of a compromise on background checks for gun buyers Wednesday.
In Thursday's vote, 50 Democrats and 2 liberal independents were joined by 16 Republicans in voting to begin debate on the legislation. Twenty-nine Republicans and two Democrats facing re-election next year voted "no" - Alaska's Mark Begich and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. All West Virginia and Ohio senators voted along party lines.
"The hard work starts now," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who brought the legislation to the floor for debate.
The Senate's firearms bill would subject nearly all gun buyers to background checks, add muscle to federal laws barring illicit firearm sales and provide slightly more money for school safety measures.
Excluded and facing near-certain defeat in upcoming votes were proposals to ban military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips - factors in the Newtown killings some other recent mass shootings. But keeping those provisions out of the current legislation did not mollify critics.
Opponents said the remaining proposals were unwarranted intrusions on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, would be ignored by criminals and would do little to prevent future Newtowns. Obama's plans have received scant support from Republicans and many Democrats, with several saying they prefer improvements in dealing with the mentally ill and stronger enforcement of existing laws.
"I'm not interested in a symbolic gesture which would offer the families of the Sandy Hook shootings no real solutions that they seek," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's No. 2 Republican.
Congress hasn't approved major gun restrictions since enacting an assault weapons ban 19 years ago, a prohibition that lawmakers allowed to lapse after a decade.
Some potential amendments could broaden gun rights and weaken supporters' backing for the overall bill.
The next significant vote is expected next week, when Reid tries adding an amendment expanding background checks less broadly than the legislation being debated. Broadening the system to cover more transactions is the heart of the current effort on guns.
That amendment, a compromise between Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would subject buyers in commercial settings like gun shows and the Internet to the checks but exempt non-commercial transactions like sales between friends and relatives. That plan, unveiled Wednesday, was designed to build bipartisan support for the legislation.
Toomey said Thursday he believes supporters of his compromise with Manchin would be able to beat back any filibuster attempt.
"Beyond that, I just don't know yet," he said on "CBS This Morning."
Gun-control groups have embraced the Manchin-Toomey compromise with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and they continued to applaud it on Thursday - while also expressing concerns about some provisions.
The NRA said it opposed the Manchin-Toomey compromise.