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In separating gun-control bills, Democrats reveal strategy

A man looks at a shotgun during the East Coast Fine Arms Show in Stamford, Connecticut, January 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
A man looks at a shotgun during the East Coast Fine Arms Show in Stamford, Connecticut, January 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats in the Senate have spread his gun-control proposals across four bills in an effort to get at least some of the less controversial measures - such as expanded background checks for gun buyers - passed into law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote as early as Thursday on the bills, which together amount to an acknowledgement by Democrats that a ban on military-style "assault" weapons is unlikely to clear Congress.

The proposed ban on assault weapons makes up one of the four gun-control bills, all of which are likely to be approved by the Democrat-led Judiciary Committee and be considered by the full Senate, congressional aides said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, will decide how to package the measures for a vote on the Senate floor.

By breaking Obama's gun-control agenda into pieces, supporters hope to avoid having a less popular proposal such as the assault weapons ban contribute to the rejection of other proposals, aides said.

The proposed ban, introduced by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, has drawn opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. It will be the focus of a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.

"We are taking a pragmatic approach that is designed to maximize our options," a senior Democratic aide said.

The four bills now before the Judiciary Committee include one introduced by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's chairman, that would crack down on illegal gun trafficking.

Another bill, by California Senator Barbara Boxer, is designed to increase school safety.

A bill, still being finalized, would call for "universal" background checks for all prospective gun buyers. Currently, only about 40 percent of buyers are screened for previous crimes or mental illness.

Feinstein's proposal, targets assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips like those used in the December 14 massacre at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six adults dead - and inspired the current action on gun control.

'NO WAY' ON ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN

Wednesday's hearing is likely be the latest in a series of dramatic Capitol Hill hearings to reflect the passion surrounding the debate over gun control.

Those scheduled to testify include the father of one of the students killed in Newtown, and a doctor who was in a local emergency room when victims of the shootings were brought in.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Democrats "are trying to create political theater" with the hearing, and that there is no way an assault weapons ban will become law.

"It faces bipartisan opposition," he said.

Even so, all four of the gun-control bills are widely expected to sent to the full Senate on party-line votes of 10-8, Senate aides said.

But to clear procedural roadblocks from Republicans on the Senate floor, the measures will need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, where Democrats and independents who support them account for 55 seats and Republicans hold 45.

There have been calls from those in both parties for expanded background checks in an effort to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentally ill.

But a bipartisan deal has not yet been struck despite weeks of talks among four senators - Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

"It is the one thing we think can really pass, and we don't yet have an agreement on it," a Senate aide said.

On Tuesday, Coburn said, "We're still talking."

(Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)

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