Weeks of reported negotiations between the National Rifle Association and Sen. Joe Manchin over legislation to expand background checks hit a roadblock Wednesday after the West Virginia Democrat unveiled his bill amid confusion over whether or not the powerful gun lobby would support the measure.
The compromise brokered this week by Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey to require checks on all commercial gun sales is a rare bipartisan deal that could very well become law. But whatever progress Manchin might have made in recent weeks to get the NRA on board was undermined by bungled messaging that publicly pitted the two parties against one another.
In advance of a press conference to unveil the legislation, a spokesperson in Manchin's office told BuzzFeed that the NRA remained "neutral" on the bill.
"The NRA has not said either way," said Katie Longo, Manchin's press secretary. "The senators have been talking to the NRA, but they're still neutral."
When the news first hit Twitter, it was widely interpreted as a positive sign for the legislation. Without opposition from the NRA, pro-gun Republicans would be given cover to vote for the popular measure.
Later Wednesday morning, Manchin appeared to confirm the NRA's tacit cooperation in his and Toomey's scheduled press conference, saying he was in "constant dialogue" with the group, but added, "I cannot tell you what their position is."
But just minutes after Manchin took his last question, the lobbying group released a statement — headline: "Statement from the National Rifle Association Regarding Toomey-Manchin Background Check Proposal" — that disavowed background checks broadly, but did not make a clear ruling either way on the bill itself.
"Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting," it read. Still, the NRA tacitly praised Manchin and Toomey for excluding personal gun transfers from the bill, calling the rejection of the "'universal' background check agenda" a "positive development."
Although the statement did not appear to directly contradict the claim from Manchin's office, it made clear enough to reporters that, despite prolonged dialogue over the background check measure, Manchin and the NRA were not in lock-step on the day of the legislation's reveal.
Asked to clarify their stance on the measure, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told BuzzFeed, "We are opposed to Toomey/Manchin. Period." But Arulanandam did not respond to repeated requests, from this news outlet and others, as to whether the organization had plans to "score" the bill on its annual scorecard. (A negative rating from the group would do more than any statement to damage to the legislation's prospects with lawmakers who want to keep in good standing with the NRA.)
After it became clear that the NRA opposed the bill, another Manchin spokesperson told BuzzFeed that Longo's use of the word, "neutral," may have been misleading.
"She should not have said that," said Jonathan Kott, Manchin's communications director. "I guess technically it was correct at the time. They hadn't given a statement at that time, so I guess they were neutral."
But Kott added that Manchin plans to continue his talks with the NRA, despite their statement today against the bill. "He always talks to the NRA and has a great relationship with them, especially back in his state. Those lines of communication will always be open," he said.
Asked if the NRA had been open about their opposition to the measure during conversations with Manchin, Kott said only, "I wasn't involved in the talks." He added that he also had not heard whether the group plans to score the background checks bill.
Manchin, an A-rated member of the NRA from a right-leaning state, has been at the center of the push for new gun control legislation since well near the beginning: Three days after the shooting last December in Newtown, Connecticut, the longtime Second Amendment advocate went on MSNBC to say he planned to call his "friends" at the NRA to bring them to "the table."
After his colleagues in the Senate pushed left-leaning measures that couldn't garner Republican support — a ban on assault weapons was dropped in March after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he couldn't get more than 40 votes behind it — a Manchin plan for expanded background checks emerged as what is widely considered to be President Obama's last shot at significant gun control legislation.
The confusion Wednesday over the current state of negotiations may jeopardize Manchin's long effort to woo support from the NRA. But if he and Toomey are able to pass the bill in the face of the group's opposition, it will be a sign that the pro-gun giant's influence has faded in the face of the mass shootings in Newtown.
Manchin, said Kott, is optimistic the bill can succeed with or without the NRA.
"I think he feels that the NRA is an influential group and also a well informed group," said Kott. "Having their support would help [the bill], but he doesn't think that if he doesn't have their support it can't pass."
Update: In a letter released Wednesday evening, NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said the organization is "unequivocally opposed" to the Manchin-Toomey bill, which he called a "misguided 'compromise.'"
"As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools," said Cox. "Given the importance of these issues, votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations."
If the legislation's current provisions are not modified, Cox added, the group will break with precedent and score a cloture vote on the bill to oppose it from proceeding on the Senate floor to final passage. (4/10/13, 9:45 p.m. EST)