WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's bid to renew a ban against military-style assault weapons narrowly won the backing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and now goes to the full Senate, where it was expected to fail.
On a party-line vote of 10-8, the Democratic-led panel approved a bill to renew a ban similar to one that expired in 2004. The measure would also limit high-capacity ammunition clips to 10 bullets.
Military-style assault weapons have been the weapon of choice in a number of recent U.S. massacres, including one at a elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 that left 20 children and six adults dead.
Polls show a majority of Americans back the ban.
But most Senate Republicans and a number of Democrats from rural states oppose it, arguing it would violate the constitutional right to bear arms. Many fear that backing the legislation could cost them re-election.
Obama's call to renew the ban is a centerpiece of his effort to curb U.S. gun violence in the wake of Newtown.
The bill offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California would ban the sale, import and manufacture of 157 specific types of military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons. The prohibition would go into effect the day the bill became law.
It would exempt 2,258 types of rifles and shotguns that are considered "legitimate hunting and sporting" firearms.
Feinstein said the exemption should provide the American people with more than enough weapons to defend themselves.
"Do they need a bazooka?" she asked at the hearing. "I don't think so."
INTENSE LOBBYING AHEAD
Before the Senate vote, likely next month, senators are certain to face fierce lobbying efforts from gun-rights groups as well as those who favor tougher gun laws, including mayors, parents and clergy.
Obama's Democrats control the Senate 55-45. Yet 60 votes may be needed to clear a possible Republican procedural roadblock to a vote on the measure.
"I don't think the bill will get more than 50 votes," Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Reuters.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, a gun enthusiast who target shoots on his Vermont farm, joined nine fellow Democrats in voting for Feinstein's bill. But he said he wasn't completely comfortable it.
"I have told her I have some concerns about some aspects of it, but I feel this is a matter of such importance that it should be voted by the whole Senate, not just by this committee," Leahy said.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader John Cornyn of Texas, one of eight committee Republicans, led the charge against the bill.
"This is a flawed piece of legislation that jeopardizes the self-defense and constitutional rights of law-abiding Texans, while doing nothing to address the tragic problem of gun violence," Cornyn said.
"We should be addressing the serious deficiencies in our mental health system, improving our background check database, and rigorously enforcing existing laws," he said.
The assault-weapon ban bill is the fourth gun measure approved by the committee in the past two weeks, all on party-line or largely party-line votes.
The others would expand criminal background checks on gun buyers, make it a federal crime to buy a gun on behalf of someone who is prohibited from owning one, and provide $40 million a year in federal matching funds for each of the next 10 years to bolster school security.
The only one that seems likely to win approval by the Senate and be sent to the Republican-led House of Representatives for consideration is the measure to enhance school security. The one to expand background checks may also survive if Democrats can reach a compromise on it with Republicans.
Backers of the assault weapon ban acknowledge the right to bear arms, but also cite a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the right is not unlimited.
They argue that government has a responsibility to protect its citizens against undue risks, such as a would-be mass killer with an assault weapon.