By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama attempted on Thursday to inject fresh momentum into efforts to pass gun-control legislation, pleading with U.S. lawmakers not to forget those shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut three months ago.
Amid signs that he may have to accept a scaled-down version of gun legislation, Obama sounded a note of frustration in calling upon Americans to demand action from the U.S. Congress in the weeks ahead.
He said the legislation's opponents, the powerful U.S. gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association, are "doing everything they can" to derail the effort barely 100 days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which a gunman killed 20 children, six staff members and then himself.
"The entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different. Shame on us if we've forgotten. I haven't forgotten those kids. Shame on us if we've forgotten," said Obama, appearing at the White House with mothers of children who had been shot to death.
The gunman in Newtown, Adam Lanza, fired 154 rounds in less than 5 minutes, selecting high capacity magazines from a home arsenal stocked with swords, knives and a cache of guns, officials said Thursday.
Despite events like this, a grassroots organizing effort by Obama supporters and a high-profile advertising campaign funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to keep up the pressure, gun legislation has been stalled on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
The best chance of success for gun-control advocates is that Congress will approve universal background checks for gun purchasers and tougher penalties for gun trafficking.
Less likely to pass are bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, two of the main proposals to emerge from Vice President Joe Biden's gun violence task force, formed by Obama after the Newtown shootings.
'JUST THE BEGINNING'
Biden seemed to acknowledged the challenge when he said on a conference call on Wednesday organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns that the administration will keep pressing for action regardless of what Congress does in the immediate future.
"Let me say this as clearly as I can: This is just the beginning," Biden said.
Obama had hoped at the outset of his second term to use his re-election mandate to make rapid progress on three major issues: gun violence, deficit-reduction and immigration reform.
All are moving slowly, however.
Immigration may offer the best prospect for action as Republicans seek to attract more Hispanic Americans who voted overwhelming for Obama and his Democrats in the 2012 elections.
Republicans insist that any pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants be preceded by certification that U.S. borders are secure.
The biggest stumbling block to an immigration bill concerns creation of a guest-worker program to allow immigrants to cross the U.S.-Mexican border legally for temporary jobs.
U.S. labor unions, which worry such a program would lead to a loss of jobs for Americans, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have yet to arrive at a formula acceptable to both. Their agreement is considered crucial to bringing Congress along.
Obama has said he is encouraged by the progress, and he believes the dispute over the guest-worker program can be resolved. After first declaring the U.S.-Mexican border sufficiently secure, Obama now says it can be improved, a position that may permit him to make a deal with Republicans.
"I'm actually optimistic about this, in part because I think both Republicans as well as Democrats are now recognizing that it's the right thing to do," Obama told Univision, a Spanish-language network, in an interview on Wednesday.
Obama's attempt to negotiate a "grand bargain" aimed at reducing the U.S. budget deficit is facing old-fashioned political gridlock and could collapse into a partisan sinkhole.
In a fresh round of schmoozing to discuss this and other legislative items, Obama will dine with a dozen Republican senators on April 10, the second such meeting he will have held in his attempts to engage his political opponents.
TAXING THE RICH
Lawmakers are still bruised from a fight over $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that went into effect a month ago despite Obama's attempt to head them off.
Obama still wants what Republicans refused to give him in that budget fight, an increase in taxes on the wealthy by eliminating some deductions and loopholes. Republicans instead want to cut spending.
The White House struck a pessimistic note this week on the prospects for success given the Republican leadership's refusal to agree to raise more tax revenues.
"As long as Republicans are saying we're not going to ask the wealthiest and well-connected to pay a single dime to reduce our deficit, then it is hard to imagine that we're going to reach a compromise," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
The difficulties in gaining passage of major legislation reflects the continued grip partisan politics holds on Washington, with the White House and Senate run by Democrats and the House of Representatives controlled by Republicans. This makes the 2014 midterm congressional elections of increasing importance.
"Look, it's what we all thought when Obama was re-elected," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There is just not going to be a lot of new legislation in Obama's second term, unless he wins the House in 2014, and even then it looks very, very tough."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Todd Eastham)