WASHINGTON – Democrats running for Senate in Pennsylvania quickly applauded President Obama's executive actions Tuesday to expand background checks for firearm sales and strengthen enforcement of gun laws, while pressing the incumbent Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey, to do the same.
Toomey, though, drew a line between his support for more background checks and Obama's executive maneuvers.
"The president needs to follow the law," Toomey said in a conference call with reporters.
He won widespread praise and national attention in 2013 when he cosponsored a bipartisan bill, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), to expand background checks, written in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. Obama praised that effort in unveiling his plans Tuesday morning.
But Toomey, who said he still supports the idea, questioned Obama's methods, saying the issue should be addressed by working with Congress.
"The fact that Congress doesn't do something, whether or not I happen to personally agree (with) it, doesn't give the president the legal authority to do it," he said. "We have a constitution, we are a democratic republic, and presidents are not kings or dictators, they don't get to make our laws themselves."
(Manchin later also said Obama should work with Congress on the issue).
The president's moves on the divisive and seemingly intractable issue once again brought into focus one of the national debates that has been a recurring feature in the early stages of Pennsylvania's senate race, and Toomey's record on guns.
Obama's "commonsense gun safety efforts" reflect "responsible measures I fought for while in Congress," said a statement from Joe Sestak, one of three Democrats seeking the nomination to challenge Toomey this fall. "Unlike Toomey, who deserted his sole gun safety effort after one lost battle and had to be dragged back after the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook, I will be a persistent warrior in the Senate for gun violence prevention."
Katie McGinty, another Democratic candidate, also hailed Obama's "commonsense steps" also pivoted toward the incumbent.
"It is shameful that Congress was unable to pass comprehensive gun legislation in the first place. Senator Pat Toomey and his Senate Republicans should see this as a sign – inaction on gun violence is no longer acceptable," McGinty said in a release.
A third Democrat in the race, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, said in a statement Obama "is taking responsible action. It's a shame he has to go it alone and we can't have these kinds of sensible steps taken in a bipartisan manner in Congress."
Republicans, however, said Obama is overstepping his legal powers in order to infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Toomey said in a news release that he still supports background checks for all commercial gun sales, also calling such a step "a commonsense way to protect public safety."
Obama and Democrats have said the president has been forced to take action by himself -- clarifying existing laws and tightening enforcement -- because of Congress' refusal to pass tougher gun laws that would have more sweeping effects.
Obama's moves would require more gun sellers to acquire licenses and conduct background checks, increase the staff performing such checks and boost funding to address mental illness – an issue many Republicans have blamed as the cause of gun violence -- among other steps.
Obama said his actions were within his legal authority and would protect "our rights and our kids."
While Toomey points to his background check bill as a symbol of his willingness to work across the aisle to solve big problems, Democrats hoping to unseat him have tried to chip away at his credentials on the issue.
More broadly, national Democrats have made gun violence and their support for tougher gun laws a rallying point as they hope to take back the Senate this year by winning seats in moderate states, including Pennsylvania.
McGinty and Sestak's "attempts to politicize this issue will not distract from the widespread bipartisan praise of Pat Toomey's courageous leadership to prevent criminals from acquiring guns," said a Toomey campaign spokesman, Ted Kwong.
In December Toomey re-affirmed his support of his background check bill, voting for it again as Democrats tried and failed to pass it through the Senate.
His rivals questioned why he did not reintroduce the bill himself or push for a vote sooner.
Pennsylvania's senate race this year is expected to be one of the toughest in the country, and critical to control of the Senate.