WASHINGTON – Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) voted again Thursday for a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases after Democrats reintroduced the measure he proposed two years ago.
He was one of just four Republicans to support the plan, and it fell short in a largely party-line vote, 48-50
Toomey announced his plans to back the bill on a conference call with Pennsylvania reporters hours before Senate Democrats forced two votes on gun laws, held against the backdrop of Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. One of the votes was on the background proposal Toomey made in 2013 with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va).
"I have always supported the policy," of expanding background checks, Toomey said Thursday, though he doubted that the measure would pass. It was first proposed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Conn., and failed. The Senate has turned more conservative since.
Toomey also said he supports the idea of barring people on the terrorist no-fly list from buying guns, but said he would want to see Democrats' specific language on a proposal to do that. He later voted against a Democratic bill to take that step, supporting a less restrictive GOP version that allowed gun buyers to challenge their inclusion on a watch list. Neither version passed.
The issue is fraught with political implications for both parties and especially for Toomey.
His Senate race next year is one of the most critical in the country, and Democrats have accused him of backing away from his 2013 background check bill in the face of conservative pressure. They note that he has not re-introduced the bill or pushed for a vote on the Senate floor.
"Senator Toomey could reintroduce his gun legislation now, why does he need to wait on Democrats? We can't wait on his failed leadership to protect Pennsylvania families," said Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Katie McGinty, one of three Democrats running to challenge Toomey next year.
Another Democratic contender, Joe Sestak, said in a release that Toomey hasn't reintroduced the bill, "either because he lacked the courage" or "because his true conviction remains the same as when he said 'my idea of gun control is a steady aim,'" -- pointing to a comment the senator made in 2010.
And a third Democrat in the race, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, said "the NRA owns Pat Toomey" pointing to past votes to shield gun makers from liability, decrease the waiting period for gun purchases and against a proposal to ban high-capacity magazines.
Asked Thursday why he didn't re-introduce the background check bill himself, Toomey said Manchin was planning to do so today, and he did not want to "cut in front of a colleague."
The measure would expand background checks to cover more purchases, including those at gun shows.
A Toomey spokesman, Steve Kelly, said, "it's a shame, but not a surprise, that machine politician Katie McGinty and extreme liberal Congressman Joe Sestak refuses to put aside their personal ambition and join the widespread bipartisan praise of Pat Toomey's courageous leadership on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals."
Toomey, who points to the bill as a sign of his willingness to compromise on big issues, has said he still supports it, but that it does not have a realistic path to passage in the Senate, where most Republicans and some Democrats oppose the idea. He has faced pressure from gun owners to leave the issue alone.
Senate Democrats, however, are pressing their case in the aftermath of the California killings, the most deadly in the U.S. since Newtown. They may have a unique opportunity Thursday, when the Senate plans a "vote-a-rama," an unusual session that allows for quick votes on numerous amendments.
Senate Democrats announced Thursday morning that they hope to use the forum to force votes on several measures to tighten gun laws – even though the results would not result in new laws.
"Mothers should not have to bury their daughters because Congress doesn't have the courage to act," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the Senate's third-ranking Democrat. "Enough is enough and Senate Democrats are not waiting one more day."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) plans to introduce the amendment to bar people on the terror no-fly list from buying guns. Being on the list would be enough to raise a flag in a background check.
Toomey said it "makes sense" that someone banned from boarding a plane would also be barred from buying a gun. But he said he would want to see the exact language in the proposal, and allow for people who are mistakenly added to the list to be able to get their names removed.
He voted against Feinstein's plan. Instead, he supported a proposal from Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), that would allow the Attorney General to stop a gun purchase by a suspected terrorist -- but only for 72 hours, unless the government could obtain a court order stopping the transaction.
Cornyn said gun buyers deserved to have a hearing if they were going to have a fundamental right -- buying a firearm -- stripped. He said some people are wrongly on the terror watch list including, at one time, former Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"My amendent would provide that due process," Cornyn said.
Toomey, in a statement, said Feinstein's bill "provided no meaningful opportunity for innocent U.S. citizens to challegne being erroneously placed on a terrorist list, and that is why I opposed it."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said any lawyer could slow the process for 72 hours, potentially allowing a suspected terrorist to complete a gun purchase.
"This is outrageous that people would try to run from this amendment," Reid said. "If you're on a terrorist watch list, you shouldn't be able to by a gun."