WASHINGTON -- The Senate Thursday cleared the way for the debate on the first piece of major gun control legislation to be considered in that chamber in two decades.
With families of victims of the Newtown massacre watching silently from the chamber, the Senate thwarted a threatened filibuster with a vote of 68 to 31 and will proceed next week to debate a package of legislation that would expand background checks for gun buyers, increase the penalties for criminal sales and a variety of other amendments. Those include the renewal of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004. Twenty-nine Republicans voted against the measure, as did two Democrats.
“Americans across this great country are looking to us for solutions and for action,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, “not for filibustering or sloganeering.”
Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, served as the voice of the opposition, reading letters from gun owners who fear infringement, like a pair of first time gun owners senior citizens. “Protecting our rights, the few the government has left us, is up upmost importance to us,” Mr. Lee said.
The vote, while a short-term victory for gun control advocates, in no way presages passage of new gun laws. The impending bill will again need 60 votes to end the debate after consideration of contentious amendments offered by both supporters and opponents of new laws.
Should it climb that mountain, 51 votes would be needed to get to final passage, and many Democrats from conservative states who face re-election campaigns next year have indicated that they do not intend to vote for the bill.
A sense of the oncoming debate could be seen Wednesday and Thursday as senators from both parties took to the floor to make their case for and against new gun laws.
Senator Chris Murphy, a freshman from Connecticut who in other circumstances would draw scant notice, spent hours both days on the floor with large poster-sized photos of the children killed in Newtown in December. He described their quirks, like an interest in the piano or proclivity for sharing a tiny bed with a sibling.
Mr. Murphy also spoke of other victims of gun violence across the country. “We deserve to talk about them as well,” he said.
The families of the dead from Newtown, who visited with several senators this week, overshadowed the discussion.
“Tears were shed as you might expect,” said Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who met with them. “In their grief they have come forward and shown extreme courage to walk through the corridors of power in Washington.”