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Washington - A pair of pro-gun senators announced a compromise plan Wednesday to expand background checks on many firearms purchases.
The proposal stopped short of the expansive system sought by President Barack Obama and many gun-control advocates. But it won swift bipartisan backing and became the template for what would be the most consequential congressional action on firearms regulations since the 1990s - suddenly upending the polarized politics of gun control.
It won praise from advocates of stiffer restrictions, including Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent, reflecting the eagerness on that side of the debate to score concessions following months of intense opposition from the National Rifle Association.
The NRA opposed the proposal, which was offered by two of the lawmakers it had backed for years, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But an otherwise critical statement released by the NRA following a Toomey-Manchin press conference cited "a positive development" in the move toward a background check system the group viewed as less intrusive than the one being pushed by Bloomberg and the White House.
The Toomey-Manchin plan would extend the current background check requirement from covering only sales at licensed dealerships to covering any sale that takes place at a gun show or that was advertised in print or online. However, background checks would not be required for many sales between private individuals - a loophole that many gun-control advocates had hoped would be closed.
The new proposal would also expand some gun rights. Gun dealers would be able to sell guns across state lines, for example, and gun owners with state-issued permits to carry concealed weapons would be allowed to carry their firearms through states that don't allow concealed weapons. The senators also called for a national commission to evaluate causes of violence, including the role of the entertainment industry.
The gun-rights expansions have been long-time NRA recommendations. And gun-control advocates, including the White House, appeared ready to accept such compromises in the name of a broader deal - effectively conceding that their hopes for universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips had proved unrealistic in the months since the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., jump-started the gun debate.
"This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger," Obama said in a statement Wednesday. "But the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress. 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."
The appearance Wednesday morning by Toomey and Manchin followed weeks of on-again, off-again negotiations. The Pennsylvania Republican stepped into the mix in the final days when conversations with a GOP colleague, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, stalled amid disagreements about whether an expanded background check system would collect records about gun owners.
Law enforcement officials say records are necessary to track criminal use of guns, but many gun-rights activists see them as a threat to Second Amendment rights. The new proposal would require that all sales covered under the new background check system be recorded by licensed dealers.
Toomey predicted the plan would pick up support from conservative Republicans in the Senate and the House.
"Candidly, I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control," he said. "I think it's common sense.."
Manchin, in an interview, described the plan as one that would force both sides to make concessions.
"All of them have to look at it and say, listen, are the gun show loopholes closed? Absolutely," Manchin said. "Are Internet sales stopped from proliferating to a much larger degree? Absolutely. Did we create new law? No. We expanded on existing law. The things the NRA would love are in this bill."
The men have a delicate sales job ahead. Pro-gun lawmakers and the NRA could still seek to block it or offer amendments to undermine the compromise, and some lawmakers were already vowing to do so as the legislation begins to move later this week.
Even if the measure were to pass the Democratic-led Senate, it would face stiff odds in the Republican-led House.
The Senate is set to vote today on a "motion to proceed" to consider a gun-control bill that will be offered by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and eventually include the Toomey-Manchin proposal. Sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster threatened by some conservative Republicans, and supporters appear to have secured enough support.
The push by Toomey and Manchin to carefully woo conservatives came into play even in the choreography of Wednesday's announcement. Toomey asked that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., not appear at the press conference, and Schumer consented, according to several aides familiar with the talks.
The conservative group Heritage Action nevertheless criticized the legislation and its GOP architect, issuing a press release Wednesday stating, "we expect more of Pat Toomey."
Coburn was sharply critical, saying the plan if enacted would encourage criminals to find new loopholes. "Why wouldn't you just make an agreement to make the purchase later after the gun show?" Coburn asked.
Behind the scenes, gun industry advocates were divided and uncertain, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Despite the NRA's stated opposition, "we are looking closely at this proposal and examining its merits," said one longtime industry advocate, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. Another, Richard Feldman, a former NRA political director and lobbyist for manufacturers, said he was "enthusiastically in support."
Gun-control activists pledged to mobilize in support of the measure.
The newly formed group Americans for Responsible Solutions - founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, Mark Kelly - plans to campaign against senators who try to block consideration of the gun legislation.