WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats set aside their effort Wednesday to win support from conservative Sen. Tom Coburn for requiring federal background checks for nearly all gun purchases, at least temporarily hurting President Barack Obama's chances for pushing one of his top priorities through Congress.
Democrats' failure to resolve a final dispute with the Oklahoma Republican means they've lost a valuable ally, at least for now. Coburn has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association and could have prompted backing from other Republicans and from moderate Democrats from GOP-leaning states leery of alienating voters.
In addition, gun-curb supporters say the Senate will have to approve legislation with strong bipartisan support to boost their chances of success in the GOP-led House. Republican leaders there have said they won't act until the Senate produces legislation.
Senate Democrats instead will seek backing from other Republicans for what they still hope will be a bipartisan drive to expand the current background check system, said an aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been leading the Democratic effort.
The aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said conversations with Coburn would continue. But it was clear that Democrats' focus was shifting elsewhere.
Requiring nearly universal background checks is the foundation, and most popular part, of the proposals to curb firearms that Obama unveiled in January. That package came a month after the shooting massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., of 20 first-graders and six staffers.
Currently, the checks are required only for sales by the nation's 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers, not for private sales between individuals, like those at gun shows or online. An Associated-Press-GfK poll in January found 84 percent favored requiring background checks at gun shows.
The talks between Coburn and Schumer foundered because Schumer was insisting that records be kept of private gun sales, perhaps by the seller, the manufacturer or others. Negotiations had lasted weeks and the two sides were stuck on the issue for some time, so Wednesday's development was not a surprise.
Schumer argues that retaining such data is the only way to assure that private transactions include background checks, which are designed to keep guns from criminals, people with mental problems and others. Coburn says such checks could be a precursor to a federal registry of gun owners, which is vociferously opposed by the NRA, is illegal under current law and which the White House says will not happen.
"Dr. Coburn is still hopeful they can reach an agreement," Coburn spokesman John Hart said.
The government must quickly destroy records of background checks it conducts. But licensed gun dealers are required to keep paper records of firearms they sell for 20 years, and must turn them over to the government if they go out of business.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to begin voting Thursday on four gun control measures.
Lacking a deal with Coburn, one of the bills will be from Schumer, requiring nearly universal background checks resembling a measure he proposed two years ago. It will lack some of the provisions he tentatively had agreed to with Coburn, such as an appeals mechanism for veterans barred from obtaining guns because they have been formally declared to have serious mental difficulties.
The panel also plans to consider bills banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, making gun trafficking and buying guns for people forbidden to own them federal crimes, and boosting aid to schools for security measures like installing video cameras.
All are expected to pass the committee, but their fate in the full Senate is less certain.
Schumer's bill could be amended to reflect any bipartisan agreement that is reached by the time gun legislation reaches the floor, probably in April.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also have been involved in the background check negotiations and said in a joint statement that they would continue looking for an agreement with other senators.
"It is clear that ultimately we will need bipartisan support," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview.