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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the Senate prepares to debate a gun-control bill for the first time in two decades on Monday, Republicans in the House of Representatives are devising ways to delay and weaken gun legislation they see as limiting Americans' right to bear arms, congressional sources say.
Some Republican lawmakers and strategists are urging House Speaker John Boehner to kill any gun-control bill passed by the Senate by refusing to take action on it.
But the Republican speaker is planning what could be a months-long review of the bill that likely would involve chipping away at gun-related measures in the plan while pushing for proposals to identify and treat the mentally ill as the best hope for a compromise plan to reduce gun violence.
House Republicans' focus on mentally ill criminals has become sharper in recent days, as a bipartisan plan to expand background checks on prospective gun buyers gained momentum in the Democrat-led Senate - thanks in part to emotional calls for action in Washington by family members of victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
The Senate is expected to vote on Tuesday on that plan, which would expand background checks to include those who try to buy guns online and at gun shows.
Other Senate amendments would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style "assault" weapons - measures generally seen as having little chance of going anywhere.
The background checks proposal - probably Democratic President Barack Obama's best chance at getting a significant gun-control bill through Congress - is expected to wind up in the final Senate bill, along with plans to boost funding for school security and tighten restrictions on gun trafficking.
Boehner has pledged that the House will act on any gun bill that emerges from the Senate. He has indicated that the House's review would allow a lengthy debate without many of the deadlines and restrictions that usually guide the chamber's work.
Many House Republicans saw that as a signal that conservatives who are staunch defenders of gun rights will have several weeks, or months, to come up with amendments that could make the gun bill unpalatable even to Senate Democrats who now support it.
For House Republicans, gun-control legislation is a political tightrope.
Like most Republicans in the Senate and a few Democrats from conservative, gun-friendly states, many House Republicans oppose the Senate plan to expand background checks and are under intense pressure from constituents and the gun lobby to resist such measures.
That level of opposition in one chamber of Congress typically would be enough to quash a bill without action. But some House Republicans say they are wary of refusing to act on any gun bill passed by the Senate.
At a time when public opinion polls suggest that at least 80 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks - and as family members of the Newtown victims help Obama keep up the pressure on lawmakers - these Republicans worry about their party looking like an obstructionist if it does not allow at least an airing of the Senate bill.
Not doing so, they say, could hurt Republicans' chances to build on their 31-seat majority in the 435-member House and gain the six seats they need to win control of the 100-member Senate in the 2014 elections.
"There's a national expectation that this issue's going to be treated seriously, that the Congress is not going to ignore it or have a sham debate or have a few guys in the back room make a deal," said Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
In his mostly rural southern Oklahoma district, hunting and gun ownership are part of the culture. Cole said every constituent he has spoken with since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown in December has voiced opposition to any new gun restrictions.
"This is a very emotional issue, and no matter which side people are on, they need to know that the Congress takes it seriously and that every idea gets a fair hearing and an open debate and eventually a vote," Cole said.
Not all Republicans agree.
Several Republican House members privately say they hope Boehner - whom they continue to view warily because of his efforts to compromise with Obama on budget issues and because of his vote to boost taxes on the wealthy in the "fiscal cliff" bill - will wind up taking a hard line in favor of gun owners' rights by refusing to consider a Senate bill.
If not, they warn, Boehner and Republicans who follow him risk drawing primary challenges from conservatives in their districts, and becoming targets of the powerful National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun lobby.
"The rank-and-file in the House wants absolutely (nothing) to do with this," said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who said some conservatives see the gun issue as a test of Boehner's speakership.
Wilson, a former aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney who works with Capitol Hill Republicans, said that several conservatives he knows would revolt against Boehner if the speaker is seen as helping Obama get a gun-control bill through Congress.
Boehner's "calculus has to be, 'Is this the thing I want to risk my speakership on?'" Wilson said.
Boehner has brushed aside such talk. He has made clear that it is up to the Senate to produce a bill, and that the House would be deliberate in considering it.
"I fully expect that the House will act on (gun) legislation in the coming months," Boehner said. "But ... I want the (House) Judiciary Committee to take the time to look at whatever the Senate does produce - assuming they produce something - and have members on both sides review that and make their determination."
In the end, Republican lawmakers and aides say that any gun legislation to emerge from the House - if it gets that far - would be considerably weaker than what is likely to get through the Senate, leading to lengthy negotiations between the chambers to work out the differences.
Several House Republicans think that by focusing on preventing gun violence by the mentally ill, they could back a winning issue - one with broad bipartisan support that is likely to make it through the legislative gauntlet - without compromising their strongly held support of gun owners' rights.
"The House is going to try to look at what are the issues that we're trying to solve, rather than trying to say, 'We did something,'" said Oklahoma Representative James Lankford, who heads the House Republican Policy Committee.
The debate over gun control seems certain to put a spotlight on the different priorities of the Senate and the House, according to analysts who say they would be surprised if the House produces any gun bill.
Senators represent entire states, and so they are less beholden to voters in any one region. Many House members, on the other hand, represent districts that were redrawn by state legislatures in 2010 to be particularly favorable to Republicans or Democrats.
As a result, the House is more politically polarized, and members put a priority on pleasing a constituent base that often is dominated by a particular ideology. That's why dozens of conservative, compromise-resistant Republicans are a force in the House - and why more moderate Republicans have the most to lose in backing a gun bill, said Paul Sracic, chairman of the Political Science Department at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
"These guys already took a vote to raise taxes with the fiscal cliff," Sracic said. "If they vote for (a gun bill), they may be cementing the idea that they're going to be challenged" by more-conservative candidates in a primary, he said.
However, a go-slow approach on guns could help those House members from being labeled as roadblocks while keeping their constituents satisfied, Sracic said.
Reporting by David Lawder and Sam Youngman; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech