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Newtown passion moves Senate vote on guns

This week, the U.S. Senate remembered Newtown.

Last Thursday morning, no Senate Republicans were actively talking to Democrats about gun legislation. GOP senators were piling on to a threatened filibuster. And top Senate aides quietly doubted whether they could even scrape together the 60 votes needed to begin debating the bill on the floor. While the president had recently declared “we have not forgotten” the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even the most vocal advocates of gun control started to wonder if too much time had passed for the tragedy's emotional resonance to lead to the first major federal gun control legislation since the 1990s.

Majority Leader Harry Reid thanks members of the U.S. Senate who voted in favor of proceeding toward consideration of a firearm reform bill.

But this Thursday, an unexpectedly overwhelming majority of senators -- including 16 members of the GOP -- voted to begin the process of debating a gun bill.

Sitting in the gallery, crying with relief, were more than a dozen family members of the 20 young children and six educators killed on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.

"The tears that we had weren't tears of joy, but tears of remembering this is happening. We're here because of what happened to us," Jillian Soto, whose sister was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, told NBC News a few minutes after the 68-31 vote.

They were reprising on the national stage a role they played in Connecticut's state legislature, according to Democrat Chris Murphy, their home-state senator. Connecticut lawmakers just passed a ban on high-capacity magazines and added to its list of outlawed assault weapons.

"Four weeks ago, I was getting panicky phone calls from my friends in the state legislature telling me that the state legislature was not going to pass a ban on high capacity ammunition," Murphy said after the vote. "The Newtown families mobilized, and changed the calculus in Hartford. And I think that they are changing the calculus here as well."

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Prior to the first vote on gun reform in the U.S. Senate, Jillian Soto, Miya Rahamim and Carol Gardner join with other members of families of victims of gun violence as the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting are read aloud at the U.S. Capitol April 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Asked if their presence in Washington this week had helped contribute to the lopsided vote, Republican Sen. John McCain said: "Yes." It's a sentiment at least three other Republicans echoed in conversations over past several days.

"I might not vote the way they wanted me to vote, but giving them the chance to be heard, giving them a chance to tell their story meant a lot to them and it meant a lot to me," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Tuesday after he met with the families. "I'm not going to vote for a filibuster. I think they deserve an up or down vote."

Not all the relatives of those killed at Newtown are supportive of new federal measures. One father appeared earlier this month at a National Rifle Association-sponsored event and spoke out against new gun laws.

Most Republicans and two Democrats still voted against opening debate on the bill, warning that the bill infringes on Americans' Second Amendment rights. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz warned that it would ultimately lead the country toward a national gun registry.

But for the family members who sat in the chamber and watched Thursday's vote, it was a relief.

The vote came after three days of quiet, unusual and emotional lobbying that began with a flight from Connecticut to Washington on Air Force One. They had attended Obama's emotional speech in Hartford, Conn., where he pleaded with Americans to urge Congress to debate and vote on new gun laws.

During their time on Capitol Hill, they met with members from both parties and with varied opinions on the gun control legislation the Senate is now set to debate -- from Cruz, who threatened a filibuster; to rank-and-file Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia; to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the broker of a critical compromise.

What they helped achieve was a subtle but marked shift in the prevailing mood on guns.

Late last week, senators backing new restrictions were privately worrying that a less dramatic piece of the gun bill -- a provision on gun trafficking -- was getting watered down by the gun lobby. The whole package seemed to be teetering; a pile of Republicans -- 14 in all, including top GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell -- signed on to support a filibuster.

Late Friday, there was word that Sen. Pat Toomey was working with Manchin on a deal that could possibly draw Republican support. But the conservative Pennsylvania Republican's office cautioned: He was also talking to Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who by then had cooled on negotiations with Democrats. There was no deal yet. Senate leadership aides were warning the White House not to put too much stock in the discussions; they weren't optimistic that it would go very far.

Talks continued through the weekend. The NRA was constantly involved. On Sunday night, CBS News' "60 Minutes" aired a group interview with family members, who called on Congress to act -- or at least vote.

The president spoke in Connecticut Monday. The families had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning before coming to Capitol Hill.

Late that evening, Senate aides were quietly saying a compromise between Manchin and Toomey to expand background checks was close at hand. Toomey's participation in the deal reflects the political reality back home in Pennsylvania -- many of the state's swing voters live outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where gun control has wide support. He'll need those voters in 2016, when he's up for reelection -- and when the presidential race will mean more Democrats will probably turn out to vote.

By Wednesday morning, Toomey was on board and the deal was done-- and that afternoon, family members met first with Toomey and then with Manchin in his office.

"I'm a parent; I'm a grandparent," Manchin said in a near-whisper, choked up, when a reporter asked how the families had impacted his work. One of the parents offered him a tissue. Others in the group also began to cry.

Meanwhile, the GOP senators who were considering taking a stand against debating the gun bill on the floor -- Cruz, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah -- went silent. Two planned press conferences on guns were scheduled, then canceled. Privately, GOP leaders worried their public stand would do serious damage to the party.

There was no public filibuster. Instead, Republicans quietly objected to a procedural motion, trying to keep the Senate from formally opening debate on the gun bill.

"We should have 60 vote hurdles if they want to try to abridge the Second Amendment," Paul said Thursday.

The night before, the NRA put out a scathing letter opposing the background check compromise and threatening to dock lawmakers’ ratings if they vote to end debate on the bill’s final passage. But that didn’t faze Toomey, an A-rated Republican, who said he wasn’t surprised by the group’s letter. The NRA also left lawmakers with the impression it wouldn’t score the Thursday vote to start debating gun laws.

Thursday's vote to begin debate is likely the easiest part of an uncertain process. There are potentially dozens of hurdles before it reaches ultimate  passage in the Senate. That’s far from certain, with a number of Republicans who voted to start debate today warning that they might not support the final legislation. The Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, voted against starting debate on the gun bill in the first place.

For the bill's opponents, the best chance of defeating it could come by adding an amendment that would anger gun control groups and prompt Democrats to oppose the bill. In 2009, for example, a measure to require states to recognize concealed weapons permits from other states received 58 votes; the NRA has been pushing hard to add that into this bill.

The bill's future is even less certain in the House, controlled by Republicans. A bipartisan pair of congressmen -- Republican Peter King and Democrat Mike Thompson -- introduced an expanded background check bill in the House that mirrors the Senate compromise.

But the Connecticut families are vowing to maintain their presence on Capitol Hill throughout what their senators have warned will be a long process.

Said Soto, whose sister was killed: "This is one thing we needed done, and we're not going anywhere.”


NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, Mike Viqueira, Frank Thorp, Luke Russert and Carrie Dann contributed to this report.