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Gun Bill’s Progress Reflects Political Shift, but G.O.P. Support Is Fragile

WASHINGTON — As Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst weighed whether she should vote to a two-pronged arms reform measurethe telephone lines in her offices were flooded by voters hoping to convince her.

The calls came in about six to one, she estimated, with an urgent message, “Please do something.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Ernst became one of 14 Republicans who broke with her party to move forward with legislation, pushing her past a Republican blockade that has thwarted years of efforts to overhaul the country’s gun laws. The vote was indicative of how lawmakers in both political parties have been spurred to action by the horror of successive mass shootings, including a racist massacre that killed 10 black people in Buffalo and a frenzy at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and killed two teachers.

“I’ve even talked to Republican lawmakers in the state of Iowa, and they said, ‘We’re hearing from our voters on this issue, too,'” said Ms. Ernst, the No. 5 Republican, adding, “So I think people are recognizing that something has to be done.”

But the list of defectors also illustrated the fragility of the coalition willing to move forward with even a modest compromise on weapons and the political danger that a majority of Republicans still see in backing new laws on the issue. It suggests that, far from a sweeping shift that could usher in a new era of consensus on tackling gun violence in America, the bill represents a pinnacle for a congress that could soon be in the hands of a Republican party still vehemently opposed. to do this.

Only two of the 14 Senate Republicans who broke ranks to back it will be reelected this year, and for various reasons, neither of them is particularly concerned about losing the support of their party’s conservative base.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict President Donald J. Trump during his 2021 impeachment trial and runs for re-election as a moderate, has been repeatedly rewarded by voters for her independent streak. Indiana Senator Todd Young has passed an undisputed primary in his conservative state.

Three of the defectors—Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina—will leave Congress by the end of the year. The rest, including Ms. Ernst, who won a second term in 2020, will not face voters for years.

So is Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, whose willingness to pass the bill was a sign some Republicans have calculated that given the magnitude of the public outcry over mass shootings, their party could not afford it. to become like a blockade to a modest compromise on arms security in an election year.

“If we make things safer, without taking away people’s Second Amendment rights, I think we might have knitted this exactly the way it was supposed to be,” Ms Murkowski said.

The bill has yet to be approved in the Senate, where Democratic leaders hope to push it through and pass the House by the end of the week before it can make it to President Biden’s desk.

The legislation, negotiated by a small group of Democrats and Republicans, would expand background checks to give authorities more time to investigate the mental health and youth records of potential buyers under 21, and include serious dating partners for the first time. . in a law that prohibits domestic violence from buying firearms. It would provide states with federal money to enact “red flag” laws, allowing temporary confiscation of weapons from people deemed dangerous, and other intervention programs and pumping millions of dollars into supporting mental health care and improving mental health. school safety.

“There are mixed opinions at home, but generally the response has been positive because people are realizing that we are not hurting law-abiding gun owners,” said Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of the Republicans involved in the discussions.

The 64-34 votes to pass it indicated the measure has more than enough support to pass the 60-vote threshold needed for a Republican filibuster to break, a barrier that has hindered more ambitious efforts to address gun violence. packing has stopped. But less than a third of the Republican conference, including members of Mr. McConnell’s leadership team, were willing to back it Tuesday. (Senator Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania who will retire this year, was absent, but said in a statement he supports the measure.)

To win over Republicans, the chief negotiators, like Mr. McConnell, have emphasized the bill’s investment in addressing mental health issues and its success in limiting its scope much more narrowly than Democrats wanted. Democratic negotiators dropped more ambitious proposals, including a ban on the sale of semiautomatic weapons to buyers under the age of 21 and other firearms restrictions, which passed the Democrat-controlled House but failed the evenly split Senate.

“Read the bill and let’s talk about what you’re concerned about,” said North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a key Republican negotiator. “When you position it like that and people fully understand what we’re doing and, more importantly, what we’re not doing, it’s not a difficult discussion for me to have in North Carolina.”

But the majority of Congressional Republicans are still expected to oppose the compromise as excessive. House Republican leaders on Wednesday formally urged regular lawmakers to oppose the measure, arguing it is “taking the wrong approach when trying to curb violent crime” in a message circulating among offices .

As in the Senate, the few House Republicans who have said they support the measure are heading for the exits. Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who has announced he is retiring, said on Wednesday the measure “sends a clear message that Congress can work together to keep Americans safe.”

Texas Senator John Cornyn, a leading Republican negotiator, was booed at his state’s party convention last weekend, with Texas Republicans going so far as to reprimand the senior legislator and eight of the Republicans who had signed on to an initial bipartisan scheme. Adding to the opposition of the party’s right wing, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, branded the 14 Republicans “traitors to the Constitution and our country.”

But many of those Republicans defended the measure Wednesday as a worthy compromise.

“When people say, ‘Can’t you do something?’ the answer is yes,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and one of the Republicans who has worked on gun laws in the past, adding: “There are always concerns. I can’t please everyone.”

Senators and aides said the talks were aided by leaders of both parties, who gave ordinary lawmakers time to come to a deal, and a willingness to set aside policy positions that could alienate both sides.

“I think the American people want us to do something — react instead of wringing our hands and blaming the school system or the parents or the gun,” said West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, one of the Republican supporters. .

Ms Capito did not approve an outline of the compromise agreed this month. But when she went home to West Virginia last week, she said, the message she heard from her constituents was different: “Do something.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” she concluded. “That’s why I did it. That’s why I voted for it.”

Ms. Ernst, like other senators who voted to advance the measure, said she and her staff had a lot of work for them to do in educating voters who had misconceptions about the legislation’s impact on gun owners.

“If they knew and understood the bill, I think they would support more, rather than jumping on the newest myth or bandwagon out there,” she said.

There is no guarantee that all Republicans who voted to go through with the bill will ultimately support it.

Mr. Young suggested he was still investigating the details of the legislation, including pushing for details to determine whether there were well-founded concerns about infringement of Second Amendment rights.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to go through the text and ask different stakeholders and experts to think about it,” said Mr. Young Wednesday. “I remain open to support it. I also remain open to not supporting it.”

Stephanie Laic and Catie Edmondson reporting contributed.

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