WASHINGTON - The Senate is poised to begin the most wide-ranging and ambitious battle over gun control on Capitol Hill in 20 years, with a vote scheduled Thursday that would formally start the debate.
News of that vote was a boost for the Obama administration, which has lobbied hard for increased background checks on potential gun buyers, and new limits on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. All will face heavy opposition from the National Rifle Association and its Capitol Hill allies in both parties.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, who have been supported in the past by the NRA and have been negotiating a bill on expanded background checks, are planning a morning news conference today where the details of a deal could be announced, people familiar with the negotiations said.
The developments came on a day in which the subject of gun control - and emotional reminders of gun violence - overtook Washington. On Capitol Hill, relatives of those killed in December's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., made solemn visits to senators' offices.
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned his father's death by self-inflicted gunshot.
The Democratic-led Senate is expected to reject President Barack Obama's proposals for assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. And even Obama's proposals for expanded background checks could be watered down. The NRA is working on alternatives that could be introduced during a Senate debate.
In an ominous sign for the president, at least two Democratic senators - Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana - said Tuesday that they are unsure whether they can support him.
On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a "motion to proceed" - essentially giving itself permission to consider a gun control bill.
Sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster threatened by some conservative Republicans, and the votes appear to be there.
"I am not going to join in a filibuster against bringing the bill to the floor as long as there is ample opportunity for amendments," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She was one of at least eight Republicans who seemed likely to join with most of the 55 Democrats in voting to proceed.
On Tuesday - even before it formally began - the gun debate appeared to be something different on Capitol Hill. That was evident in the halls of the Senate office buildings, where a small group of people moved silently among the talkative crowds of tourists, staff members and glad handers with nametags.
They were relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, 11 people representing eight families. They wouldn't say whom they were planning to meet with.
It was an attempt to influence politics, without giving up the power or privacy of their grief.
"We're not political. We're just moms and dads and husbands and wives," said Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary Sherlach, a psychologist at Sandy Hook, was killed along with five other women and 20 children on Dec. 14. "We see the obvious, and we're not caught up in the political trappings."
But this was Congress. Their effort to avoid politics lasted all the way to the door of the first office they visited. There, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., greeted them with hugs in front of the assembled news cameras.
Later in the day, the same solemn group visited the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. They closed the door behind them and Isakson opened it. "Why don't y'all come on out?" he said. "We're not going far."