HELENA — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said Thursday he opposes a gun-control bill backed by fellow Democrats and is still assessing a separate bipartisan compromise on background checks.
However, Baucus voted against blocking debate over the bill in the Senate, saying the issue is significant enough that debate and potential amendments should be allowed. The measure is supported by most other Democrats.
"I am not in favor of the bill as it is coming before the floor of the Senate and I will vote against it," Baucus told The Associated Press before senators voted down an attempt by conservatives to block the debate.
Baucus did not take a stance on a developing amendment by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania that offers less restrictive federal background checks compared to the Democratic bill hitting the floor Thursday.
The developing amendment requires checks at gun shows and for online transactions but exempts noncommercial, personal transactions.
The bipartisan amendment also has language increasing firearms rights by easing some restrictions on transporting guns across state lines and letting gun dealers conduct business in states where they don't live.
As proposed, that amendment would replace stricter language in the Democratic bill on background checks. Baucus intends to await feedback from Montanans before he makes a final decision on that bipartisan change, his office said.
But Baucus made it clear he is opposed to the bill coming forward for debate in its original form, although he does like a portion of it that increases spending a little on school safety.
It is possible that amendments could get his support for an altered bill, he said, but indicated it was unlikely because Montanans have voiced strong opposition on key portions. He said his office has been flooded by about 16,000 phone calls against it, with only about 2,000 favoring it.
"My job is to stand up for Montanans, they are my employers," Baucus said.
Background checks now apply only to transactions handled by the country's 55,000 licensed gun dealers. Advocates of expanding the system say too many sales escape the checks that are supposed to keep weapons from going to criminals, the seriously mentally ill and others.
Baucus is up for re-election in 2014 and has faced criticism for his past support of Clinton-era gun control. Since then, he's worked hard to oppose gun control and become the only Senate Democrat with an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association.
Baucus said Montanans have made it clear they oppose any ban on assault weapons, and he will again oppose any amendments to add such a provision to the gun control bill.
The six-term senator said he waited to announce his position on the bill so he could get more feedback from constituents. He said on a recent trip home he was told "don't vote for that Eastern gun bill back there."