Though the National Rifle Association publicly criticized a bipartisan agreement to expand background checks, the gun rights group's representatives were a near-constant presence during talks to reach that accord.
Two sources familiar with the negotiations told NBC News that the NRA kept close tabs on talks between Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that resulted in an agreement announced this morning. Their plan calls for expanding background checks to include most gun sales, including at gun shows and online.
The agreement won a quick rebuke from the NRA in a subsequent statement.
"While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg's 'universal' background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows," the group said in a statement this morning. "The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedies in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson."
But the NRA's chief lobbyist, Christopher Cox, in fact led the group's efforts to shape the Manchin-Toomey deal. Their involvement raises question about how vigorously the group will oppose the new background checks deal.
One Senate Democratic aide said that Democratic leaders are operating under the impression that the NRA will not throw its full weight behind opposing the background check bill, something which would relieve pressure on moderate Democrats and Republicans to vote for the legislation.
Publicly, the NRA says it's opposed. But the key question -- especially as the Senate moves toward votes on various gun measures -- involves how aggressive the NRA would oppose the Manchin-Toomey proposal. That could include a decision as to whether and how the NRA decides to include votes on the background check compromise -- and the overall gun bill -- in their influential ratings system.
Both Toomey and Manchin have "A" ratings from the NRA.
Separately Wednesday, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Susan Collins announced they'd reached an agreement with the NRA on gun trafficking language that will be included in the overall gun bill.
This story was originally published on Wed Apr 10, 2013 3:43 PM EDT