The U.S. Senate voted on Thursday to overcome a Republican-led filibuster against tougher gun laws, clearing the way for a major congressional debate on a package of proposals sought by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Connecticut school massacre.
The procedural vote followed a breakthrough by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, who reached a compromise on broadening background checks to include private purchases at gun shows and on the Internet.
Because of the bipartisan deal, Senate Democrats backing the legislation received support from enough Republicans to approve the cloture motion, 68-31, setting up debate on the proposals and amendments expected to last for two weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, pledged after the key vote to let both sides offer amendments. But he insisted they include an updated ban on semiautomatic firearms modeled after military assault weapons and a limit on ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
Both proposals were part of Obama's desired legislation, but were dropped from the package brought to the Senate because they would have prevented Democrats from overcoming the GOP filibuster.
While just a procedural vote, the Senate action represented a major step for Obama and Democrats in ensuring public votes on the most significant gun legislation to reach the Senate floor in almost two decades.
The powerful firearms lobby led by the National Rifle Association opposes the gun-control package and made clear it will seek political retribution on any legislator that supports it. This included Thursday's vote on launching debate.
Despite the agreement forged by Manchin and Toomey, both rated as strong supporters of gun rights by the NRA, the prospects for significant gun legislation to win congressional approval remained uncertain.
Any measure passed would then go to the Republican-led House, where GOP leaders have indicated resistance to the kind of proposals sought by Obama.
On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner stopped short of promising his chamber would vote on gun legislation, saying he first has to see what gets sent over from the Senate.
"I fully expect that the House will act in some way, shape or form," Boehner told reporters. "But to make a blanket commitment without knowing what the underlying bill is, I think would be irresponsible on my part. The Senate has to produce a bill, and I've made clear, if they produce a bill, we will review it and take it from there."
The NRA clearly rejected the proposed legislation so far, with Chris Cox, who heads the group's institute for legislative action, saying in a letter to the Senate that it "would unfairly infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners" and that the group "unequivocally opposed" it.
Cox's letter called the compromise by Manchin and Toomey "misguided" and added that Thursday's procedural vote would be included in its assessment of legislators that serves as political ammunition in election campaigns.
Two Senate Democrats from pro-gun states up for re-election next year -- Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- voted with 29 Republicans attempting to filibuster the legislation. Sixteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and Independents in supporting a floor debate.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Obama called relatives of Newtown, Connecticut, shooting victims who were in Washington for the vote to thank them for their efforts to pressure Congress to take up the gun proposals.
An earlier statement by more than 30 relatives of the 20 first graders and six educators killed in the massacre last December criticized senators for their attempted filibuster, saying they "should be ashamed of their attempt to silence efforts to prevent the next American tragedy."
In an emotional scene Wednesday, Manchin choked up while meeting with some of the Newtown residents who praised him for political courage in taking on the NRA.
"You give me more legislative strength than you know," Manchin said at one point. He later was unable to speak and reached for a tissue when asked by a reporter how the Newtown families affected his role in the negotiations with Toomey and others.
Following the Newtown shootings by a lone gunman, Obama called for a series of proposals including "universal" background checks on all gun purchases. Currently, the federal law requiring background checks covers licensed firearms dealers, with private sales excluded.
Fierce opposition by the NRA and its allies in Congress -- mostly conservative Republicans but also some Democrats from gun-friendly states -- made clear that the universal checks sought by Obama had no chance of passing, leading to efforts by Manchin, Toomey and others to work out a compromise.
In announcing the compromise on Wednesday, Manchin noted the proposal meant that firearms buyers at gun shows would face the same background check currently required in sales by federally licensed gun dealers. In addition, it would close a loophole that exempts intrastate gun sales on the Internet from requiring a background check, he said.
Addressing concerns of the NRA that expanding background checks would burden law-abiding gun owners seeking to trade or gift weapons in a personal transfer, Manchin declared that "personal transfers are not touched whatsoever."
Another provision would recognize the legitimacy of concealed weapons permits across state lines.
The Manchin-Toomey compromise also would require states and the federal government to provide records on criminals and the "violently mentally ill" to the national background check system, addressing a criticism by the NRA and other opponents of gun laws that the existing system lacks substantive information.
In addition, the plan calls for a new National Commission on Mass Violence to report in six months on "all aspects of the problem, including guns, school safety, mental health, and violent media or video games."