U.S. President Barack Obama (4L) makes a statement on gun violence as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (5L), former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (2L) and family members of Newtown, CT shooting victims look on in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Earlier today the Senate defeated a bi-partisan measure to expand background checks for gun sales. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA Today) -- An angry President Obama criticized a minority of the Senate on Wednesday who helped defeat a proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases, which was seen as the core of legislative efforts to curb massacres such as the one at a Connecticut school in December.
"All in all this was a pretty shameful day for Washington," Obama said in the Rose Garden, flanked by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the family of a child killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Just hours before, the Senate voted 54-46 to defeat an amendment by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. on tougher background checks. Sixty votes were necessary to get around a filibuster - a tall order because it meant drawing on Republican support to make up for losing majority-party Democrats.
Three Democratic senators from red states who are up for re-election in 2014 -- Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska -- voted against the background checks proposal. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also voted "no," as did Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Four GOP senators -- Toomey, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona -- crossed party lines to support the measure.
Reid's vote was procedural. It will allow him to bring up the background checks measure again if supporters believe they can get enough votes.
In a surprise, ailing Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., appeared in the chamber for the first time in weeks to cast an "aye" vote. He has been battling muscle weakness and fatigue, and came to the Senate floor in a wheelchair.
After the vote, the National Rifle Association called the background checks proposal "misguided."
"This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools."
In a sign of the importance of the gun debate, Vice President Biden presided over the chamber during the vote on background checks. In an online chat with mayors, he seemed to acknowledge it would be a long shot but vowed to keep pressing for gun control measures.
"I can assure you one thing: We're going to get this eventually," Biden said. "If we don't get it today, we'll get it eventually. I think the American people are way ahead of their elected officials."
Before the vote, Manchin pleaded with his colleagues to remember the 26 people who died Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"If you want to remember those 20 babies -- beautiful children -- and the six brave teachers ... and you want to honor the most courageous family members I have ever met, please vote for this bill," he said.
The Senate will now take votes on other amendments, including one to ban assault weapons and limit the size of magazine clips, as well as a package of legislation addressing mental health issues.
A substitute plan by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would tighten the background check database but not expand the types of sales subject to it was defeated. A measure by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to toughen rules on gun trafficking was also rejected.
During Wednesday's debate, Manchin held up his NRA membership card in the Senate chamber and called out the gun lobby for "lies" about what his measure would do. Specifically, he said, the gun lobby had inaccurately claimed the amendment would criminalize the transfer of guns to friends and family members.
"Where I come from, West Virginia, I don't know how to put the words any plainer than this: That is a lie. That is simply a lie," he said. "It's not a universal background check."
The expanded background checks would have extended to purchases made at gun shows and on the Internet. Reid said Wednesday morning that the bill would not create a national registry of guns or gun owners and derided such claims as "nothing but shameful scare tactics."
Earlier in the day, a pro-gun rights group withdrew its support for the background checks proposal. The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms said it could no longer support the amendment because it did not have adequate provisions to make sure people could have their gun rights restored if, for example, a conviction were expunged.