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Reid Kicks Off Gun Debate With Emotional Swipe at Republicans

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Gun rights supporter John Shagena of Reynoldsville, Pa., speaks to tourists about his opposition to gun control legislation in front of the Senate steps of the Capitol on Monday. The Senate began debate on gun control legislation this week.

Majority Leader Harry Reid issued an emotional plea as he launched debate Monday on the most sweeping gun control legislation to reach the Senate floor in nearly two decades. But fundamental questions remain, including what the bill’s final language will be and whether Republicans can block the debate from proceeding.

The legislation (S 649) would require background checks on nearly all gun sales, impose tough new criminal penalties on firearms traffickers and authorize new funding for school security improvements.

In formally opening debate on the measure, Reid did not provide an update on the status of closed-door negotiations on the background check requirement, which has emerged as the White House’s top gun priority and is by far the most contentious aspect of the overall package.

Instead, the Nevada Democrat assailed a group of 13 Republican senators who sent him a letter threatening to block a motion to proceed to “any legislation that will serve as a vehicle for any additional gun restrictions.”

The group initially consisted of three first-term senators with tea party backing — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah — but on Monday expanded dramatically. It now includes establishment Republicans such as Marco Rubio of Florida, who is widely considered a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

Later Monday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also joined the group’s call for a filibuster on the motion to proceed, at least on the legislation as it is currently written. McConnell’s announcement threatened to sharply escalate the procedural fight over the bill.

“The least Republicans owe the parents of these 20 little babies who were murdered at Sandy Hook is a thoughtful debate about whether stronger laws could have saved their little girls and boys,” Reid said on the Senate floor, referring the shooting massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December. “The least Republicans owe them is a vote.”

Reid also accused Republicans of hypocrisy.

Republicans “call for free and open debate in the Senate, and those yelling the most for this free and open debate are the people who sent me a letter saying, ‘We’re going to filibuster everything that relates to guns,’” he said. “Talk about speaking out of both sides of their mouths.”

Background Check Talks

While the group of 13 GOP senators appeared inclined to block debate on any bill with new gun restrictions, McConnell did not rule out allowing debate on the legislation to proceed if the measure is changed. That is a possibility, given ongoing negotiations over the background check component of the package.

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