WASHINGTON — The bipartisan bill to expand background checks for gun buyers fell flat on the Senate floor Wednesday, capping a failed months-long campaign by Sen. Joe Manchin that was marked from start to finish by a series of messaging missteps and strategic blunders.
The bill, an eleventh-hour deal brokered last week by Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, would have required background checks for commercial firearm purchases on the web and at gun shows. Family members of major mass shootings victims — from Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech — looked on from the Senate gallery Wednesday afternoon as the votes rolled in for a final count of 54-46.
Some version of the gun control bill could still theoretically pass. But the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment was widely viewed as the most important element of the legislation from the perspective of gun control advocates, and its swift defeat in the Senate represents a serious blow to their efforts in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school late last year.
Manchin, a pro-gun Democrat with friends on both sides of the aisle, seemed like the perfect senator to carry the gun control banner. But he repeatedly got in his own way with public and private statements that riled his opponents and confounded even some of his allies.
One of those mistakes came at the beginning of his campaign for expanded background checks, at a breakfast on March 18 for reporters and columnists sponsored by Bloomberg View in New York City.
At the meeting, Manchin accidentally let slip that he was headed the next day to a meeting with the National Rifle Association to try to woo the powerful gun lobby's support for his legislation, which at the time had yet to gain a Republican co-sponsor.
Although no ground rules had been set at the start of the Bloomberg discussion, Manchin retroactively tried to put his comments off the record. The senator's office was then forced to spend the rest of the morning on the phone with reporters pushing back against the terms, including one from BuzzFeed. But Manchin's talks with the NRA leaked later that week to Politico.
The senator's weeks of negotiations with the NRA came to a halt last week on the day he and Toomey unveiled their bill at a press conference. The press secretary in Manchin's office told BuzzFeed that morning that the NRA was staying "neutral" on the bill. But minutes after the story was published and the press conference concluded, the NRA released a statement disavowing background checks. The group's spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, later went even further: "We are opposed to Toomey-Manchin. Period," he said.
The confusion over whether the group would oppose the bill undermined Manchin's negotiations, and publicly pitted the two parties against one another on a crucial day for the effort.
By the morning of the vote, their relationship was in apparent disarray: The NRA was asking its supporters to call their representatives to "urge them to oppose the Manchin-Toomey amendment," and Manchin was on the floor of the Senate, saying the group had misrepresented his bill to the public.
Meanwhile, gun control activists and their allies in Congress pinned their hopes on the Manchin-Toomey amendment. Advocates came out in favor of the compromise plan, and powerful Democratic senators like New York's Chuck Schumer got on board as well.
Manchin-Toomey was the last chance for background checks, and gun control-supporting Democrats seemed to rely on Manchin to sell it to their more reticent colleagues. But some advocates said he stumbled in the final hours of that effort.
Earlier Wednesday morning, just hours before his amendment was set to see a vote, Manchin appeared to lose confidence in his own bill's chances, despite the fact that a number of his colleagues in the Senate were still officially undecided.
Just before 8 a.m., Manchin told an NBC News reporter that the deal was dead in the water. "We will not get the votes today," he said. The network also reported that the red-state Democrat was "telling folks privately his amendment with Toomey is going down." Just minutes later, Manchin was on MSNBC's Morning Joe with Toomey to say he was optimistic. "We'll see," he said.
Manchin, a longtime Second Amendment advocate with an "A" rating from the NRA, was reportedly on the phone with his colleagues until midnight Tuesday and again at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning in an effort to sway last-minute votes. He also attended the weekly "Wednesday meeting" hosted by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist to make a last-ditch appeal to conservatives. Toomey, too, told reporters he was working the phones Wednesday for what he expected would be a "close vote."
But by early afternoon, it became clear that not enough senators would support the bill.
Gun control advocates speculated that Manchin's back-and-forth on the morning of the vote — with lawmakers like Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp still on the fence — gave cover enough for still undecideds to jump ship before the vote that afternoon.
"He got ahead of himself this morning and made it harder for us," Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told BuzzFeed before the vote.
"I'm going to give Manchin a lot of credit for putting his neck out on this thing. But I think as the team leader, you've got to be out there cheering the team on," he said. "You've got to get out there and push to the last moment and if you lose you lose."
"What quarterback doesn't want the ball in the fourth quarter, ball in the hand, down by a couple points," Horwitz added. "That's where we are. And you don't want you're quarterback saying, 'eh, guys, we really can't win this,' you know? 'Sorry you guys broke your leg for me and you're out there playing in pain but yeah, we cant win.'"
But asked whether the bill's failure was his responsibility, or just a defeat at the hands of the NRA, Manchin told BuzzFeed before the vote, "If somebody doesn't want to vote for it, that's fine, but don't make up something that's not in the bill."
"So if we would somehow not quite get over the hump today, that'd be wrong, because it's been put together by too many people who want to protect legal gun owners like myself," Manchin said.
Proponents of the bill say Manchin could have better handled the roll-out and execution of the background checks proposal, but they blame the defeat on Republicans in the Senate committed to opposing any legislation perceived to be anti-gun.
Mark Glaze, a spokesman for the Michael Bloomberg-headed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said Manchin shouldn't take any heat for sticking his neck out as a red-state Democrat and taking the lead in one of the country's most heated political issues.
"Joe Manchin has been a profile in courage and as will be demonstrated today there are precious few of those in the United States Senate," Glaze said.
But even Bloomberg, while commending Manchin's efforts, seemed to criticize his execution in a statement released shortly after the amendment failed, with four Democrats voting against it.
"Democrats — who are so quick to blame Republicans for our broken gun laws — could not stand united," Bloomberg said.
John Stanton contributed to this report.