Toiling to Complete a Gun Bill, Two Parties Part Ways on Its Reach
WASHINGTON — As the first two-party agreement on gun security measures takes shape on Capitol Hill in years, Republicans and Democrats are working to keep their compromise on track by sending disparate messages about its scope and implications.
Democrats, who wanted much more sweeping gun control measures, have noted that if passed, it would be the most important legislation on the issue in decades. Republicans, fearful of exceeding their gun control base, are instead focusing on the proposals they’ve kept out of the deal, including bans on guns or ammunition and raising the age for buying firearms.
The contrast between how Democratic and Republican proponents describe the proposal — large and monumental versus focused and limited in scope — reflects the tricky politics surrounding the issue and the fragility of the coalition that has come together to try to break a years-long stalemate.
“It will undoubtedly save lives and would be the most significant action against guns the Senate has taken in nearly three decades,” New York Democrat and majority leader Senator Chuck Schumer said Tuesday.
Not long before that, Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who played a pivotal role in the talks, displayed an oversized chart on the Senate floor with the headline “Ideas Rejected in Negotiations,” while carefully explaining what his party had agreed to and — just as important – what it didn’t have. He noted that the Democratic proposals rejected by Republicans included universal background checks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and an assault weapon ban for 18- to 21-year-olds.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said Tuesday he was “easy” with the bipartisan framework that had emerged and that he would support a final bill that followed the parameters, another indication Republicans are pushing for it. the coalition behind the deal and show their colleagues that it would be politically safe to support it.
The effort enters a critical phase as negotiators from both sides struggle to translate an agreement in principle into legislative language that can draw 60 votes on the Senate floor. The move under discussion would require enhanced background checks for potential gun buyers under the age of 21, make it more difficult for domestic abusers to obtain firearms, and provide federal grants to states to enact so-called red flag laws to sell guns. from the hands of dangerous people, among other steps.
Democrats entered negotiations two weeks ago with modest hopes, simply wanting to demonstrate that it was possible to break the deadlock and pass some sort of gun safety legislation in the wake of a mass shooting, conceding that it would have to be curtailed to allow enough Republican parties to attract support to succeed.
The political stakes were high, even if the expectations of a major breakthrough were not. With President Biden’s polls falling as he struggles to move most of his agenda forward, he and Democrats are desperate for a legislative victory to boost his presidency and their prospects for the congressional midterm elections.
At the same time, after the shooting of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Republicans acknowledged that they had to catch up with their own political realities: that the vast majority of voters, including their own, approved at least some gun-safety measures, including improved background checks.
Yet they have girded themselves against a backlash to their right flank by trying to downplay the idea that they gave the Democrats any ground on guns.
Appearing on Fox News this week, Mr Cornyn assured viewers that “states that don’t have red flag laws will not be forced to pass them” and that the proposal contained “no new restrictions on law-abiding gun owners.”
“Part of the problem we’ve run into is that people are reading things into the bill that aren’t there, so this is a process of trying to explain what’s in and out,” Mr Cornyn said in a brief interview on Tuesday .
That is a matter of political necessity for Republicans as the right wing mobilizes against the compromise. Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert has branded the senators who signed up as “squishy RINOs” — Republicans in name only — while the American Firearms Association, a gun rights grassroots group that is raising funds out of outrage over a potential deal, called those involved Republicans are “treacherous bastards” who want to “disarm this entire country”.
A spokeswoman for former President Donald J. Trump said he was furious with Republicans who had embraced the framework. “We must prevent these RINOs from joining the Democrats,” spokeswoman Liz Harrington said in an interview with a conservative media outlet, claiming the red flag laws would turn the United States into “the Soviet Union.”
(Following consecutive mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, in 2019, Mr. Trump called for red flag laws.)
“I think we’re more interested in the red wave than red flags, frankly,” North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer said Tuesday after Mr. Cornyn presented an outline of the upcoming bill in a private meeting. by GOP Senate lunch.
Democrats have their own challenges in staying united behind the proposal, as progressives have expressed concerns about its limited scope and approach.
New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said he is concerned that the proposal, which would allow law enforcement for the first time to review juvenile and mental health records of gun buyers under the age of 21, could lead to the “criminalization” of children.
Mr. Schumer has tried to talk out everything the bill would do, noting the importance of improving background checks for those under 21 and closing the so-called loophole, a longtime priority for gun safety activists.
Yet critical bottlenecks remain unresolved.
Cornyn told reporters on Wednesday that he was concerned that states without red flag laws would be ineligible for funds for crisis intervention programs. Both Democrats and Republicans have also suggested there are disagreements over exactly who would be covered by closing the loophole, which aims to include dating partners in a ban against domestic abusers to get guns. The ban currently applies to spouses.
“If we don’t make it to 60, we’ll have to phase out some of it at some point,” Cornyn said, warning the bill-writing phase could last until next week.
Connecticut’s Senator Christopher S. Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator, said he didn’t expect anything in the frame to fall out of the final bill, and was confident it would be passed.
While putting out differing reports about what the arms deal would and wouldn’t do, both Democrats and Republicans have a legitimate argument.
Because the bar for a historic gun breakthrough in Congress is low — no significant federal gun laws have been passed since 1993 — a modest step still counts as a significant moment.
Those dynamics may be unsatisfactory for Democrats frustrated that they have to accept incremental progress and implement only a fraction of the policies they believe would save lives, but it could be a political win-win for them, strategists said.
“They have an important achievement to talk about, and they also have a lot of grass left for a very fruitful debate about what more needs to be done to tackle gun violence and mass shootings,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “The reality of Senator Cornyn’s position is that the provisions that Republicans left out of the bill are very popular with the vast majority of voters. That is the policy that will be litigated in the midterm elections.”
And while the difference in emphasis may reflect how divided the country is on weapons, some said it was also a sign of progress.
“The way both Republicans and Democrats are messaging shows to me that they’re really serious about getting things done,” said James P. Manley, a former top adviser to former Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid.