Washington -- In an emotional vote, the Senate on Thursday handily beat back an attempt by some Republicans to block consideration of the most comprehensive gun-control legislation Congress has considered in 20 years.
With family members of Newtown's victims watching from the gallery, the Senate voted 68-31 to move forward on a bill that would extend FBI background checks of prospective gun purchasers and toughen federal penalties for trafficking and other-gun related violations. Only 60 votes were needed to end the GOP-led filibuster.
Sixteen Republicans joined most Democrats in voting to let the legislation proceed.
"It's a huge mistake for Republicans to try to block [this legislation] especially after the massacres in Tucson and Newtown and other places," said Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, one of the Republicans who broke with his party on the bill.
After the vote, the Newtown family members filed out of the Senate gallery, somber and some wiping their eyes. Jackie and Mark Barden, son of slain 7-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School student Daniel Barden, hugged Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and thanked him for his "yes" vote.
"Today is historic, literally the political landscape is changing," Blumenthal said. "These families have been absolutely staggeringly impactful...my colleagues have been moved to tears, emotions that we haven't seen in a long time."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also voted to end the filibuster.
The only two Democrats to vote against moving the gun control bills to the floor were Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Both come from rural states with many gun owners and have tough re-elections next year.
Opposition to the gun bill weakened considerably after Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., reached a compromise this week on the expansion of FBI background checks that would exempt people-to-people purchases.
"I do believe the more people learn about what this bill actually does, support will grow," Toomey said.
But Sen. Richard Shelby, D-Ala., a "no" vote, said he is "a gun man" and would "vote against anything that would weaken the Second Amendment."
The National Rifle Association, which has been lobbying fiercely against all attempts to strengthen gun laws, has threatened senators on their votes.
"Expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools," top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox wrote in a letter sent to senators Wednesday. "Given the importance of these issues, votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations."
Final votes on the gun control legislation will begin next week. Gun control opponents insisted on 30 hours of debate that can only be stopped by another procedural vote that would require 60 votes. The first measure considered will be the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
Republicans and Democrats will be allowed to offer other amendments. Some could weaken the legislation.
On the other hand, Blumenthal hopes to attach a ban on high-capacity magazines to the bill and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., hopes to offer an amendment on an assault weapons ban.
"The most important tests will come next week," Murphy said at press conference with gun violence victims before the vote. "I think love won this week. Our hope is that love wins next week as well."
But Thursday's vote should hearten gun control advocates. It showed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to keep most Democrats loyal.
The vote also showed that a number of Republicans are willing to vote for of the more moderate proposals under consideration.
McCain, for instance, said he is "favorably disposed' to support the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
Jillian Soto, sister of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher's aide, Victoria Soto, said she had hoped for a tougher background check amendment.
"But I'm happy that we are getting somewhere," she said.
But the fight on Capitol Hill over gun control is in its early stages.
Whatever final bill wins Senate approval next week may run into trouble in the Republican-led House, where the NRA has the support of a majority of the members.