UPDATED: All eyes on Toomey; Gun deal 'close'

File photo: Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. speaks to a member of the media at Temple University Hospital on Monday, March 11, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

UPDATED - 6:35 PM WASHINGTON - Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, are "close" to an agreement on a bill to expand background checks for gun sales, and hope to finalize a deal Wednesday, Manchin said Tuesday night at the Capitol.

We’re not there yet, we’re close than we’ve ever been," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), standing alongside Manchin after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Manchin has been working closely with Toomey to try to win the Republican's support for a background check bill. He said they are close to a deal that would eliminate the background check loopholes for sales at gun shows and via the internet, but questions remain about how the bill would advance, procedurally. Democrats had said they hoped to move to votes Thursday.

There was no immediate reaction from Toomey's office. Toomey has declined to speak to reporters today.

If Toomey signs onto Manchin's background check bill, it would give the measure the bipartisan support of two pro-gun lawmakers, a key factor from a political perspective.

"We’re sister states, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania," Manchin said. "Pat and I have been friends. I know Pat and feel comfortable," with him.

"The gun culture he comes from is pretty much like mine."

Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t talking.

The Pennsylvania Republican, thrust into the center of negotiations over a bill to expand background checks, has twice declined to speak to reporters in the Capitol today as a 5 p.m. deadline looms for reaching a bipartisan agreement.

Toomey rushed past me as he got off the subway below the capitol this morning.

“I’m running to a meeting,” he said, walking briskly and not breaking stride.

Later, after a senate vote, he declined to stop to answer questions from a group of waiting reporters. (See below for an explanation on why so many eyes are watching his moves today).

Toomey appears wary of taking a stand on the background check bill until after talks with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin conclude, one way or the other.

Manchin, for his part, broke into a full run past reporters, arms pumping, when he arrived at the Capitol. He later said he would have a status update on the talks at 5 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has given Manchin a 5 p.m. deadline to reach a deal on background checks before moving ahead with a vote on proposals for new gun laws, Politico reported. Without support from Republicans and some red-state Democrats, though, the slate of bills faces steep odds.

Reid today told reporters he'll attempt to move ahead with a vote on guns Thursday, setting up a showdown with a handful of Republicans who have vowed to filibuster the gun package.

UPDATED, 2:45 PM: At a rally outside Toomey's Philadelphia office Tuesday morning, former Gov. Ed Rendell said Toomey has told him he'll vote to end a filibuster and allow an up-or-down vote on the proposed gun laws.

That stand would put Toomey in a a small but growing group of Republicans who say they would vote to allow a formal vote on the gun legislation -- forcing everyone in the senate to take a public stand on expanding background checks and likely an assault weapons ban and ban on high-capacity magazines. A filibuster would stop the bills before they formally reach the senate floor.

A Toomey spokeswoman declined to comment on Rendell's statement.

We'll keep monitoring developments here and on Twitter.

All eyes are on Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey Tuesday as talks over gun control and expanded background checks reach a critical point.

Gun control groups, led by Mayor Nutter and former Gov. Ed Rendell, are rallying outside his Philadelphia office today and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a new television ad urging Toomey, a Republican, to support a deal to expand background checks. In the capitol, reporters are expecting his first comments on the issue since news broke that he has been in talks with Democrats on a possible compromise. (I'll post updates on Philly.com and my Twitter feed as they arrive).

The push comes as Democrats mount an all-out effort to win the support needed to pass a background check bill through the Senate this month.

President Obama delivered an impassioned speech in Connecticut Monday, visiting to the state where the Newtown school shooting shook so many and prompted a new push for tougher gun laws. He then flew family members of the slain children aboard Air Force One to Washington, where they will help the lobbying push. Vice President Biden is scheduled to speak on the issue this afternoon.

On guns, Toomey stands on a fault line.

If he comes out in support of expanded backgound checks, he could give new momentum to one of Obama's top priorities, but the issue is politically treacherous, and so far there has been no deal.

A Republican with a strong gun-rights history, Toomey has been in discussions with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin over a possible deal on background checks.  So far, Toomey has been quiet and cautious – he and his aides have offered little comment on the sensitive issue -- but on Tuesday lawmakers are due back to the Senate floor for votes and weekly caucus lunches, and you can expect the freshman senator will be mobbed by reporters.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns – the gun control group founded by Bloomberg – has a new ad saying 90 percent of Pennsylvanians support “comprehensive background checks.”

“Call Senator Toomey. Tell him it’s time to take Pennsylvania solutions to Washington,” the ad urges.

CeaseFirePA, joined by Nutter and Rendell, is rallying outside Toomey’s JFK Boulevard office at 10:30 a.m. UPDATE: Inquirer colleague Allison Steele reported that nearly 100 people showed up for the event this morning.

Toomey has long been backed by the NRA and opposed new gun laws. That’s why his support could provide an important seal of approval for any new legislation on guns. Pennsylvania has a strong hunting culture and opponents of new restrictions on firearms are politically active. Many of Toomey’s fellow Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are threatening to filibuster a background check bill.

But Toomey is facing a tough 2016 re-election and in parts of Pennsylvania – particularly Philadelphia and its suburbs – new gun laws are popular.

Each side of the debate is vowing to mobilize voters. Mayors Against Illegal Guns told the Washington Post it will launch a grading system to rate lawmakers on their votes on gun control, hoping to highlight those who oppose legislation that most Americans support (90 percent back tougher background checks).

Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage foundation – which hosted Toomey for a speech last month and is led by his close friend, former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint – announced that it will “score” a vote on gun legislation.

In other words, everyone is watching Toomey's next step. He begins the day still in flux. Washington is waiting to see where he ends up.