By Samuel P. Jacobs
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Defying a president from your own party can be politically risky for a senator. But it may be less hazardous than defying the wishes of your constituents.
That seemed to be the message on Thursday as two Democratic senators, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, joined 29 Republicans in voting not to allow debate on Democratic President Barack Obama's gun-control package.
In bucking the president, Begich and Pryor - who represent conservative, gun-friendly states and face re-election next year - reflected some of the political realities that will unfold in the next several weeks as the Senate weighs the most significant gun legislation to come before Congress in two decades.
"My state is home to thousands of hunters and gun owners just like me who will not support a bill that violates their Second Amendment rights" to bear arms, Pryor told the Times Record of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
The 68-31 vote to take up the legislation also included 16 Republicans who joined with Democrats in the majority.
Several of those Republicans are skeptical of any new gun regulations. But the intense, often emotional debate for action since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December appeared to have convinced them that Obama's plan should at least be debated and eventually voted on by the Senate.
This week, Obama traveled to Connecticut to campaign for his proposal. At a rally before 3,000 people, the president was greeted with chants of "We want a vote!"
Obama returned to Washington accompanied by 11 relatives of the Newtown victims. The family members visited with lawmakers this week in encounters that left at least one senator, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, in tears.
Obama's hopes of getting a significant gun law through Congress got a boost on Wednesday with the announcement of a bipartisan compromise plan in the Senate to expand criminal background checks for prospective gun buyers.
But most Republicans and several Democrats are not enthusiastic about new gun laws. Some, including Begich, say the federal government does not properly enforce many current laws aimed at limiting gun violence.
In an interview with the Fairbanks, Alaska, Daily News Miner, Begich said Obama called him on Tuesday to discuss the gun package.
"We had a robust discussion and I reminded him of the current law and asked why are we not enforcing that," Begich told the newspaper.
'I LISTEN TO ARKANSAS'
Pryor has shown similar defiance in supporting gun rights.
After Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-control group led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, began airing ads in Arkansas and 12 other states urging lawmakers to back expanded background checks, Pryor made it clear he was not impressed.
"I don't take gun advice from the mayor of New York City," Pryor said last month. "I listen to Arkansas."
At a time when Republicans in Arkansas have begun running ads questioning Pryor's conservative credentials, the senator also has declined to follow other Democrats in backing gay marriage.
Whatever frustration some Democrats may feel over the stance taken by Begich and Pryor on gun control, the party is counting on the conservative senators to help Democrats maintain control of the Senate next year. Democrats currently control 55 or the 100 Senate seats.
Just a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton, the former president who was once Arkansas governor, traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to campaign and raise money for Pryor.
Before a crowd in his home state, Clinton praised Pryor for being "a senator who cares about his own people more than ideological purity."
Matt Bennett of Third Way, an organization that supports expanding criminal background checks, said that "it wasn't a surprise" that Begich and Pryor voted against moving the legislation forward.
"There was always going to be leakage from the Democratic side," Bennett said. "What was surprising was the number of Republicans willing to vote for it."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)