Close vote seen on assault weapons

Cheney could cast vote to break tie in Senate


WASHINGTON - The outcome of today's Senate showdown on a proposal to extend an expiring assault weapons ban is so uncertain that Vice President Dick Cheney should be prepared to cast a tie-breaking vote, lawmakers said yesterday.

"A tie is very possible," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California as the measure's Democratic co-sponsors. "I would hope he would vote to break the tie in favor of preserving the ban."

Its Republican sponsors, Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Mike DeWine of Ohio, said the proposal is a simple 10-year extension of the 1994 law, which covers the manufacture or export of certain military-style assault weapons.

Informal tallies are so uncertain that Democratic presidential aspirants John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina were asked by Senate colleagues to slip off the campaign trail on Super Tuesday to cast what could be crucial votes.

A tie could put Cheney on the spot, because Bush has indicated that he wants the proposal to be considered as a separate bill. But the four sponsors thought it would be too easy for a separate Senate bill to be buried in the House, so they have offered it as an amendment to a popular gun liability bill.

That bill would protect gun manufacturers and dealers against lawsuits, existing or in the future, based on any grounds other than illegal sales or defective products.

Theirs is among a half-dozen controversial amendments scheduled for up-or-down votes before today's final roll call vote on the gun liability bill.

Last week, White House officials said Bush wanted a "clean" gun liability bill, so that it could be reconciled swiftly with the one passed last year by the House. They said he would veto an amended version. However, that veto threat might be moot, because the Senate has already amended the bill, by voting 70-24 for an amendment requiring that any guns sold in the future be accompanied by a child safety device, such as a trigger lock or gun safe.

Additional amendments could make the bill even less palatable to Bush, because they would make it harder to reconcile the Senate and House language.

Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and National Rifle Association board member, is leading the opposition to extending the ban. "There is nothing more intrinsically dangerous about these firearms than others," he said yesterday on the Senate floor. "They are functionally identical to thousands of other guns being used in the United States today."

DeWine, a former county prosecutor, replied: "Since it took affect in 1994, the assault weapons ban has been an effective tool in controlling crime, [which is why] it has the support of every major law enforcement organization in this country - every single one."

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