WASHINGTON - The Senate appears to be moving forward Thursday with the most comprehensive gun safety legislation in 19 years. But it will move at a Senate pace.
The debate could last weeks, Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
The first vote is scheduled for 11 a.m. That's a "cloture" vote to wind down debate and break a threatened filibuster by conservative Republicans.
Even if the Senate musters the 60 votes necessary to proceed on the gun bill, Senate rules require 30 hours of debate. That time is often routinely waived - but a single senator can insist on allowing the full time for arguments.
A trio of conservative GOP senators - Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah - have said they intend to draw out debate on the measure for as long as they can.
If the Senate ultimately votes to proceed to the bill, as appears likely, there will then be a raft of votes on substantive amendments.
No matter, says Reid.
"We're going to have amendments on this. Some of them are going to take a little bit of time. We're not going to finish the bill this week. I don't know if we'll finish it next week. But that doesn't really matter," Reid, D-Nev. said on the floor Wednesday night. "Are we going to legislate?"
The filibuster-ending vote could be a key test of the National Rifle Association's influence. The NRA's lobbying arm sent a letter to senators Wednesday warning that it would depart from its usual policy and consider the procedural vote when handing out letter grades to senators before their next election.
Vice President Biden, in an interview that aired Thursday on MSNBC, pointed to public opinion polls to show Americans are ahead of Congress when it comes to wanting legislation such as expanded background checks for gun purchasers.
"This is one of the cases where the public is so far ahead of the elected officials -- I mean so far ahead," Biden said on the Morning Joe program. "You saw it in immigration, you saw it in marriage issues, you're seeing it now. The public has moved to a different place."