Gun Control Legislation Headed For Debate On Senate Floor

Congress took a major step toward its first gun bill in nearly two decades on Thursday morning, as Democratic leaders broke a Republican filibuster to stop a proposal expanding criminal background checks for gun buyers. Sixteen Republican joined all but two Democrats to move forward with the bill. Ailsa Chang joins Audie Cornish from the Capitol to explain what it means, and what happens next.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. The Senate has voted to move forward with debate on the first gun control legislation to reach the Capitol in two decades. This morning, Senate leaders were able to defeat a filibuster attempt by a group of conservative Republicans after 16 other Republicans voted to proceed. This was great news for gun control supporters, but more battles are ahead.

With us now to talk about today's vote and accepts is NPR's Ailsa Chang. She joins us from the Capitol. And, Ailsa, now that this Republican filibuster has failed, the Senate is moving forward with debate, but what exactly are they debating? What's in this bill?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, there's an expansion of background checks, increased penalties for gun trafficking and increased school safety funding. We're also expecting some senators to offer amendments to ban assault weapons and to limit ammunition magazines. The whole fact that this debate is even happening is a big deal. A lot of lawmakers have hailed today as an important turning point because now the Senate will be considering gun legislation, and it's going to be very hard to not pass something.

Here's Democratic senator Chuck Schumer from New York. He had made an appearance this morning with family members of victims from the Newtown shooting.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: I believe that those special interest lobbies who have wielded such enormous power here in Washington have reached their peak and will be on the decline.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, a bipartisan compromise on background checks announced yesterday and seemed to have helped here. But the fact that 16 Republicans helped break today's filibuster doesn't necessarily mean that they support the legislation, right?

CHANG: That's right. It does not mean that. Republicans senators I talked to, and Democrats from conservative states, said they voted yesterday because they feel we should at least have a debate. It's ridiculous to not even talk about this. There's a very real awareness that the accumulation of recent tragedies - Newtown, Aurora, Tucson - these events have forced lawmakers into a debate about guns whether they like it or not.

There's polling out there that shows anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of Americans favor expanding background checks on gun buyers. So these senators say they can't just walk away from the issue. Also, Majority Leader Harry Reid is allowing an open amendment process on this legislation. That makes debate more inviting to Republicans.

Republican Senator Susan Collins from Maine said when her colleagues have filibustered in the past, it was because they were worried they'd be prevented from making any changes to the bill. But Collins did warn against reading too much into the fact that so many Republicans helped defeat the filibuster today.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: It is not in any way a predictor of the vote on final passage or the vote on any specific amendments.

CORNISH: OK, Ailsa. So what happens now? What are the hurdles ahead?

CHANG: Well, first, there are going to be dozens and dozens of amendments from both sides of the aisles, and some are going to be offered just to gum things up. Already, a small group of Republicans are threatening to force the Senate to spend up to four days to set up each amendment vote. And the NRA just announced that they're going to be grading lawmakers on every single vote going forward.

And, you know, we really don't know how many Republicans are going to go for any expansion of background checks. There is this notion that expanding background checks would just give the federal government more information, more records to help it track who owns guns. Here's Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: If universal background checks passed, the next day the argument would become, well, the only way this law can be enforced is if we have a registry. That's what this fight is about, is creating a registry.

CHANG: And then after debating through all of this, for the Senate to even proceed to a final vote on the bill will take another 60 votes. And it's not clear that the same senators who voted yes today will vote yes at that later point. Then, remember, any bill that gets passed by the Senate still has to go through the House.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang from the Capitol. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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