WASHINGTON The gun bill was going down, but Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who reached a compromise to try to save it, went to the Senate floor Wednesday morning to give it one more try.
In an unorthodox tactic, he appealed directly to the woman taking her turn in the presiding officer's chair, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., one of the few remaining undeclared lawmakers.
"I think there is a time in our life, a defining time in public service," he said, "when you know the facts are on your side and walk into the lion's den." Manchin, usually plain-spoken, was emotional and personal, making several references to Heitkamp and her state. "Even if politics are risky," he said, "remember the words of Andrew Jackson: 'The brave man inattentive to his duty is worth little more to his country than the coward who deserts in the hour of danger.'"
The newly elected Heitkamp turned to face Manchin and listened intently to his plea. Minutes later, her office issued a written statement saying, "I do not see a path for my support" of Manchin's proposal.
Courage was in short supply at the Capitol on Wednesday. The overwhelming majority of Americans favor the sort of background checks that Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., had proposed to keep weapons from the felonious and the insane. A majority of senators supported it, too. But too many cowered in the face of fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association.
And so, four months after the massacre of first-graders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., families of victims and gun-violence survivors were watching from the Senate gallery as the centerpiece of gun-control efforts went down to defeat. "Shame on you!" two women in the gallery called out after proponents of the background checks came up six votes short of the required 60.
Vice President Joe Biden, who had taken over the officer's chair, gaveled for order, and Capitol police removed the women. But Manchin gathered with the families after the vote and expressed his wish that lawmakers could show "just one ounce of the courage" the grieving relatives had shown.
There were moments of courage on the Senate floor. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J, seriously ill with cancer, had traveled to Washington to cast his vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., gave an uncharacteristically moving speech explaining why he was reversing his position and would vote for a ban on military-style assault rifles (the proposal failed, 40-60). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defied most in his party to speak, and vote, in favor of the background-check measure.
Bravest of all were Manchin and Toomey, both risking their "A" ratings from the NRA to follow their consciences. "This isn't gun control, this is common sense," Toomey told his colleagues in the closing minutes of Wednesday's debate.
Just last week, lobbying efforts by Newtown families helped beat back a Republican filibuster. But in the end, even a modest proposal couldn't compete with the gun lobby's might. The four Republicans who supported the compromise were canceled out by the four Democrats who opposed it. But the victory was fleeting. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe chronicled the minute-by-minute demise of the Manchin-Toomey bill this week, as fence-sitters declared their opposition:
• 12:30 p.m. Monday, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
• 8:23 p.m. Monday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
• 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
• 5:56 p.m. Tuesday, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
• 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
• 12:28 p.m. Wednesday, Heitkamp.
Manchin, wearing a green pin on his lapel in memory of the Connecticut victims, labored for his bill throughout the day on the Senate floor. "I'm an A-rated lifetime card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association," he reminded his colleagues, before denouncing as a "lie" and "hogwash" the NRA's claims about his bill.
As Republicans rose to criticize the compromise as a "slippery slope" toward a national gun registry (Chuck Grassley of Iowa) and "a legislative misfire" (Richard Shelby of Alabama), Manchin rose, too politely asking them to yield and then reminding them of the facts. But by then, the outcome was already set.
As the clerk called the roll, lawmakers on both sides gave Manchin consoling pats on the back. Toward the end of the vote, the doors parted and aides wheeled in the frail Lautenberg. Manchin walked over, leaned down, and planted a kiss on the cheek of his ailing colleague, who belted out a hearty "aye."
In a chamber of the feckless, the embracing men cut a profile in courage.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.