WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A breakthrough agreement to expand background checks for gun buyers, announced on Wednesday by two senators, boosts the prospects the Senate will approve at least some of President Barack Obama's proposed gun restrictions.
The deal by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania sets the stage for a Senate debate on a gun-control bill starting on Thursday, when the Democratic-led chamber is expected to defeat conservative Republicans' efforts to block it from reaching the floor.
Many hurdles remain, including weeks of expected debate in the Senate and amendments that could make the bill unacceptable to some senators who now support it. Any gun-control measure that clears the Senate also is likely to get a cool reception in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Even so, the proposal for expanded background checks appears to be Obama's best hope for meaningful gun-control legislation in the aftermath of the December massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The tragedy in Newtown was a driving force behind Wednesday's agreement, which would expand criminal background checks of gun buyers to include sales made at gun shows and online.
As part of an intense campaign for gun restrictions, Obama brought 11 family members of Newtown victims to Washington this week for a series of emotional, face-to-face meetings with lawmakers.
Manchin choked up during a meeting with eight of the family members in his office Wednesday afternoon, breaking into tears when asked what their visit meant.
"I'm a parent, I'm a grandparent. ... I can't imagine this," he said before stopping and wiping his eyes with tissues.
The background check system advocated by Manchin and Toomey, both ardent defenders of gun rights, would close a major loophole in a system that analysts say allows as many as 40 percent of gun buyers to avoid checks.
But the agreement, designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals and the mentally ill, has significant exemptions for "temporary transfers" of weapons or private sales among friends and family members. No background checks would be required in such transactions.
One question surrounding the compromise is whether some gun sellers could try to avoid doing background checks by saying that buyers were "friends."
More controversial parts of Obama's gun-control plan - such as a ban on rapid-firing "assault" weapons like the one used in Connecticut and limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines - appear to have a slim chance of clearing the Senate.
Obama praised the Manchin-Toomey deal in a statement, but said that "a lot of work remains. Congress needs to finish the job."
Obama's Democrats control 55 of the 100 Senate seats, but several, like Manchin, are strong supporters of gun rights.
"I'm looking forward to the debate. I'm hopeful, but I think this is a fluid situation," Toomey said at a news conference with Manchin.
The delicate nature of the upcoming Senate debate was evident on Wednesday when Toomey said he still might vote against the background check compromise if it is part of a bill with other amendments that Toomey believes would infringe on gun owners' rights.
"Today is just the start of a healthy debate that must end with the Senate and House hopefully passing these common-sense measures and the president signing them into law," Manchin told reporters.
A NEW COMMISSION
The Manchin-Toomey deal also would create a commission to study the causes of mass violence in the United States, examining images of violence in media and video games as well as issues such as school safety, guns and mental health.
Six members would be appointed by the Senate majority leader, currently Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, and six by the House speaker, currently Republican John Boehner.
Obama, who has been pushing hard for Congress to produce the first major gun-control legislation in nearly two decades, called negotiators from both parties on Tuesday, the White House said.
First lady Michelle Obama also has been an increasing presence in the White House efforts.
On Wednesday in the Obamas' hometown of Chicago, the first lady appeared to fight back tears as she talked about Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager killed by gunfire several days after returning to Chicago from Washington, where she had performed as a majorette in the January 21 parade for Barack Obama's second inaugural.
"This isn't some war zone half a world away," Michelle Obama said. "This is our home. This kind of violence is what young people here face every single day."
'IT'S COMMON SENSE'
The president's gun-control plan has been the focus of aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association gun rights group, and by gun-control advocates such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group backed by Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor and media magnate.
On Wednesday, Manchin said he and Toomey had been in touch with the NRA and other key players in the debate as the senators discussed how to expand background checks.
The NRA called the Manchin-Toomey agreement's rejection of the broader universal background checks pushed by Obama "a positive development," but added that a more "meaningful and serious" solution to gun violence was needed that addresses crime and mental health issues.
The conservative group Heritage Action took a harsher tone. It warned that lawmakers "will not get a pass" from the group if they support a gun-control bill that infringes on gun rights.
"Americans are tired of backroom deals," said Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action.
The deal won cautious support from some gun-control advocates, including Bloomberg, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the group formed by former U.S. Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona.
"There is still a long road ahead and this bipartisan bill gives us reason to be optimistic," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, adding that "a majority of the components" of the bill were acceptable.
But another gun-control group, the Coalition Against Gun Violence, said it was "deeply concerned" the agreement was too limited because it would only add background checks at gun shows and online.
The group also criticized a provision to allow dealers to sell guns at shows outside their home states, and decreasing the time allowed for processing gun-sale background checks.
Manchin's participation in the deal on background checks could bolster the prospects for the legislation. The freshman senator from West Virginia represents a state where gun ownership has long been passionately protected.
Toomey, a conservative Republican, said he did not believe expanding background checks amounted to gun control.
"It's common sense," he said. "What matters to me is doing the right thing, and this is the right thing."
Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican, and Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat, also participated in the negotiations.
On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to hold its first vote on whether to take up a gun-control bill. More than a dozen Republican senators have threatened a filibuster aimed at preventing consideration of any gun restrictions.
But with public opinion polls showing up to 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks, other Republicans have said Obama's proposals should get a Senate vote.
The measure likely to pass the Senate also could include funding for school security and tighter restrictions on gun trafficking.
That package would fall short of what Obama had pressed for, but would be far more extensive than the NRA would like.