WASHINGTON -- Senators pressed yesterday for votes on the reauthorization of the nation's assault weapons ban, with Democrats and Republicans both close to winning one of the most contentious, closely watched gun votes so far this year.
Democrats think they have the votes needed to add the 10-year assault ban renewal to a popular bill that would keep gunmakers and distributors from being sued over gun-related crimes.
They are taking no chances. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards -- who are in the midst of a Super Tuesday primary battle for their party's presidential nomination -- are stepping off the campaign trail to add their votes to the Democratic side. A vote on the bill is expected today.
With the Senate split with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and one independent senator, Democrats already are lobbying Vice President Cheney.
As the Senate president, Cheney would cast the tie-breaking vote if the vote ends up deadlocked, a very real possibility, said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, in a letter yesterday to the vice president.
"I expect that should there be a tie vote on the assault weapons ban, you will fulfill the president's commitment to reauthorizing this important public safety legislation and cast the tie-breaking vote," Schumer said.
President Bush supports reauthorizing the assault weapons ban, which expires in September, and supports closing the gun show loophole.
But the White House also wants the gunmaker immunity bill to pass the Senate without amendments to ensure it makes it through the House and to Bush's desk for his approval.
"It's about stopping frivolous lawsuits," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. "The president believes that the manufacturer or seller of a legal product should not be held liable for the criminal misuse of that product by others."
Democrats also are pushing for a vote on requiring background checks on everyone who buys weapons at gun shows, where unlicensed sellers do not have to check buyers' backgrounds.
They also have won a vote to require all newly purchased handguns to have child safety locks.
"The semiautomatic ban, the gun show loophole, a variety of other kinds of issues could simply drag this bill down and deny us substantial tort reform," said Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, the bill's main sponsor who plans to vote against both measures.
Republicans have already said that many of them will vote against an extension of the assault weapons ban, which would continue a ban on the manufacture and importation of at least 19 types of common military style assault weapons.
The Senate is expected to pass the gunmaker immunity bill regardless of the vote on the assault weapons ban.