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Obama's gun plan begins slow, scrutinized trek through Congress

The Obama administration’s gun violence proposals are beginning their arduous path through Congress, as the opening act moves to the Senate Wednesday and lawmakers begin to pick apart some of the plan’s most ambitious gun control measures.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Tuesday vowed to bring up some version of President Barack Obama’s comprehensive gun violence proposal for a vote on the Senate floor when it is ready. But he said Republicans would also be free to offer amendments to the bill, which could lengthen the legislative process and strip stricter gun control measures of their teeth.

“It's very clear that there's going to be a bill brought out of the committee, brought to the Senate floor, and there will be an amendment process there, the people bringing up whatever amendments they want that deals with this issue,” Reid told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid speaks to members of the press after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 29, 2013.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid speaks to members of the press after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 29, 2013.Alex Wong / Getty Images

The Nevada Democrat’s comments come as Congress begins the challenging process toward approving its first major piece of gun legislation since the 1990s.

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds its first hearings that topic on Wednesday, featuring high-profile witnesses on either side of that issue. Speaking in favor of gun control will be retired astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman injured critically in a 2011 shooting.

Giffords herself will deliver an opening statement to the committee.

On the other side will be National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, whose influential gun rights lobby is working to thwart the administration’s proposals on Capitol Hill. According to LaPierre’s prepared testimony, released Tuesday by the NRA, he will stake out a clear stance against the heart of the president's plan.

“When it comes to the issue of background checks, let’s be honest – background checks will never be ‘universal’ – because criminals will never submit to them,” said LaPierre in those prepared remarks.

LaPierre's testimony on Wednesday will surely reflect the sharp opposition to the Obama plan among gun rights groups; aversion that threatens to transform the battle into a legislative slog and sap the administration’s momentum.

Skepticism over assault weapons ban

While the outrage prompted by the December rampage at Sandy Hook elementary school has lingered longer than previous mass shootings, the impetus for gun control measures threatens to fade as time passes.

Already, one of the central proposals from Obama’s plan – renewing the ban on assault weapons – faces an uphill battle to be included in any final legislation. 

Reid, who has said he would not seek Senate passage of legislation that had no chance of approval in the House, was non-committal on the issue of the assault weapons ban during his comments on Tuesday. 

“I'll take a look at that,” he said of a proposed ban on assault weapons favored by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“As I've indicated to you folks, we're going to have votes on all kinds of issues dealing with guns. And I think everyone will be well advised to read the legislation before they determine how they're going to vote for it.”

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said that the House would consider whatever legislation on guns the Senate manages to pass, but has committed to little more than that. 

And, in fact, whatever legislation the Republican-controlled House is able to consider might depend ultimately on a handful of moderate Senate Democrats.

Several of those lawmakers have expressed skepticism toward the assault weapons ban, but have conveyed more interest in universal background checks – the element of Obama’s plan that gun control proponents that might have a better chance at passage. 

That provision appears poised even to win some Republican support: Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn told a Tulsa television station on Friday that he’s working with Democrats on legislation to ensure universal background checks. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was more reluctant to endorse such a measure, saying during an availability at the Capitol on Tuesday: “I'm among those who'd be happy to take a look at whatever the majority decides to advance on that subject.” 

But Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who frequently mentioned his pride as a hunter during his time as Mitt Romney’s running mate appeared to lend support to that idea during a Sunday interview on “Meet the Press.” 

“I think the question of whether or not a criminal is getting a gun is a question we need to look at. That's what the background check issue's all about,” he said. “And I think we need to look into making sure that there aren't big loopholes where a person can illegally purchase a firearm.”