As Congressional Democrats shape their strategy for considering President Obama’s proposals to curb gun violence, sharp divisions are forming between lawmakers who believe the best path to success is through narrowly written bills and a meticulous legislative process, and those who advocate a more guerrilla approach.
Many Democrats, and some Senate Republicans, believe the only legislation that has a whisper of a chance of passing would be bills that are tightly focused on more consensus elements like enhancing background checks or limits on magazines, subjected to debate in committee and then brought to a vote after building bipartisan support.
That would be a departure from recent years, when the leadership often sidestepped committees and sought to take fights directly to the floor.
Others, particularly those senators who have long fought for gun control measures, believe a plodding process allows too much time for opposition to build, and prefer to fast-track measures by adding them as amendments to other bills, even blocking bills in ways that have angered Democrats, until they are granted votes on those ideas.
“We can’t sit around for months talking and letting the gun lobby run out the clock,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey. “If we’re going to make progress, it’s essential that we move quickly and start voting as soon as possible.”
Democrats are united on one point: For any legislation to reach the Senate floor, Mr. Obama will have to put the full weight of his office and bully pulpit behind it.
Without constant public pressure and a concerted effort to woo conservative Democrats, especially those up for re-election in red states in two years, there will be little impetus, numerous Democrats said, to move legislation along. Democrats also may be forced to decide whether to endure a lengthy legislative battle on guns at the expense of priorities like immigration.
Recognizing that public pressure is going to be required to move such contentious measures, the president’s former campaign aides in the weeks ahead will convert the Obama for America operation into a different kind of outside political group led by Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s former campaign manager, according to people familiar with the plans. The new organization will be able to raise money for grass-roots campaigning on behalf of the president’s second-term agenda, they said.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader who has spearheaded other legislation desired by the White House, will take a more passive role with any gun legislation, aides to Senate Democrats say, letting the administration set the agenda and allowing senators to press ahead through their committee leadership or interest in the issue.
Mr. Reid, who was deeply disturbed by the shootings last month in Newtown, Conn., is a longstanding gun rights supporter, a necessity for any statewide official from Nevada.
Mr. Obama’s efforts on Capitol Hill will provide the most crucial test of whether the mass shooting in Newtown, and the obdurate response from the National Rifle Association, has ushered in a new chapter in a legislative era that began in 2004 with the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Since that time, most new gun legislation has emerged in statehouses, and Washington has largely enforced gun rights.
The political sensitivity around guns can be gauged somewhat through the measured statements of lawmakers long associated with gun rights.
“Some have asked whether I will try to block or filibuster this debate because of my support of the Second Amendment,” said Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who in 2009 sponsored a successful measure that repealed a gun ban in national parks. “My goal is the opposite. I believe Congress has a responsibility to review all of our laws and make adjustments as necessary in a transparent, open and deliberative manner.”
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and has a mixed legislative record on guns, said the first hearings he would schedule in the new Congress would be on gun legislation. Mr. Leahy was the only senator to attend an event with Mr. Obama this week to announce his push on gun laws.
“Our hearing will be a first and essential step to building the kind of consensus needed for any legislation to move forward,” Mr. Leahy said, “and I look forward to leading that discussion.”
Senate Democrats break down into roughly three groups when it comes to guns. There are those like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Mr. Lautenberg, who have long labored to strengthen gun control laws.
On the other end of the spectrum are members like Senator Max Baucus of Montana, whose N.R.A. scorecard is indistinguishable from those of conservative Republicans. A third group, many of them up for election in 2014, have expressed tepid support for any gun regulation and will be a likely impediment to some, if not all, of Mr. Obama’s agenda, especially a proposed renewal of the ban on assault weapons.
Noting her “strong” record of support for the Second Amendment, Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said: “That said, last month’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has become all too familiar. We must find a way to balance our Second Amendment rights with the challenges of mental illness, criminal behavior and the safety of our schools and communities.”
House Republicans are unlikely to bring legislation to the floor at all without clear Senate action, although a spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader, would not commit either way. House Republicans have said they would look at anything the Senate passes.
“I just don’t like it when you sort of put false hope out there,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said Thursday at the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va.
Speaking to the United States Conference of Mayors on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed that the administration would ceaselessly press its case. “We’re going to take it to the American people,” he said. “We’re going to go around the country making our case, and we’re going to let the voices, the voices of the American people be heard.”
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