The Senate moved forward Thursday on a bill that would significantly expand background checks for gun purchases, with 68 senators, including 16 Republicans, voting to begin debate on the legislation.
It was a hard-fought but modest victory for gun control advocates, secured only after months of public posturing and private wrangling - and only after proponents dropped several cherished but controversial initiatives to ease the bill's eventual passage.
The next few steps, however, won't be easy - or swift.
The Senate is out of session Friday, returning Monday afternoon, when it's expected lawmakers will deal with non-gun bill-related business. And when consideration of the gun bill resumes on Tuesday, it won't be a quick road to final passage, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated this week: "We're not going to finish the bill this week. I don't know if we'll finish it next week." The timing of a final vote is unclear.
Republicans opposed to the legislation are prepared to invoke a rule that would force the chamber to pause for 30 hours before considering amendments. And senators on both sides of the aisle are preparing amendments - some substantive, some symbolic - to offer to the bill, further slowing the process.
The first amendment to be considered, a compromise on background checks brokered by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is expected to pass without much drama. The amendment would expand mandated background checks for gun sales to include gun shows and the internet, but it would not require a background check for guns transferred between family members or close friends. It would also ensure that private gun vendors - not the government - are responsible for compiling and maintaining sales records, easing fears among gun rights advocates about the development of a federal gun database.
If and when the background check compromise passes, it will replace language in the current bill that does not exempt guns transferred between friends and family from the background check requirement.
Other amendments, including proposals to ban semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons and a limit the bullet capacity of ammunition magazines, are expected to be offered as amendments and eventually defeated. Proponents of those measures pushed to have them included in the bill from the outset, but Reid announced in late March that he would jettison those and other controversial elements to prevent the bill from taking on too much water.
If the bill manages to clear the procedural hurdles that lie ahead in the Senate, securing a broad enough coalition of supporters to overcome a potential Republican filibuster, it will face an even more difficult crowd in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives before moving to the president's desk for his signature.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, kept his cards close to his chest on Thursday after the Senate voted to begin debate. "I fully expect that the House will act in some way, shape, or form," he said, "but to make a blanket commitment without knowing what the underlying bill is, I think, would be irresponsible."
Boehner's caucus, dominated by conservatives and gun-rights supporters who are loathe to touch anything that smacks of gun control, will have a tough time mustering significant support for the bill. But Sen. Toomey indicated on Wednesday that he sees "substantial numbers of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach."
"Of course they want to look at the specifics of the legislation," he said, "but there are definitely Republicans in the House who support this."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whose state was wracked by tragedy in December when a gunman shot and killed 20 small children and 6 faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., hailed the bill's first concrete step forward but reiterated the prognosis of a difficult road ahead. "Five days ago, nobody thought we could move forward. And we're moving forward and very, very hopeful about next week," he said. "But don't underestimate the difficulty of the fight. We have faced an uphill climb every step of the way on this measure and we're prepared for continuing odds against us."