An unapologetic GOP U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey on Friday defended his unsuccessful effort to broker a bipartisan compromise on expanded background checks for gun buyers and told a crowd of home-state conservatives he hoped they would agree to disagree on the issue.
"In some ways, the hardest part about doing my job well is to do what I believe is right even when my friends and supporters don't agree with me...I think that's the real test of character," Toomey told a luncheon audience that gave him a friendly but restrained welcome as the annual two-day Pennsylvania Leadership Conference opened just outside Harrisburg.
Toomey, a former investment banker, has cultivated a reputation in Congress as a fiscal conservative while generally being less outspoken on social matters.
He stressed that he is a gun owner and a legislator who has a top rating from the National Rifle Association. He said his goal in developing the compromise plan with Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was to encourage more states to participate in the background check program and make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain firearms.
He acknowledged that "many, maybe most" of the people in the audience opposed the proposal, drawing scattered applause. The proposal was rejected by the Senate on Wednesday. It would have required buyers of firearms online and at gun shows to pass a background check just as customers of license gun dealers already are.
"I lost. I get that," he said. "This issue...is probably resolved for now."
Toomey said he plans to redirect his focus to economic issues.
"I intend to turn my attention to my usual wheelhouse...(of) pushing back the government that is the main reason we have a miserable economy today," he said.
Friday night's dinner included speeches by Gov. Tom Corbett and Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina who took over this month as president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Corbett, just back from leading a trade mission to Brazil and Chile, boasted that he has kept his campaign promise to balance the state budget without raising taxes and claimed that his administration's policies have resulted in state government operating more efficiently than when he took office in 2011.
"We did exactly what they said we couldn't do. We are right-sizing government, making Pennsylvania more attractive to the private sector and we are keeping taxes low," the Republican said.
The conference featured panel discussions on such issues as the fight against compulsory union membership and the use of social media to get out the conservative message. Workshops included programs on citizen lobbying and states' rights.