Working hard to complete a gun bill, two sides split from its scope

WASHINGTON — As the first bipartisan agreement on gun safety measures takes shape on Capitol Hill in years, Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to keep their compromise on track by sending disparate messages about its scope and its implications.

Democrats, who wanted far more sweeping gun control measures, noted that if passed, it would be the most significant legislation on the issue in decades. Republicans, fearful of crossing their anti-gun control base, are instead focusing on proposals they kept out of the deal, including banning weapons or ammunition and raising the gun buying age.

The contrast between how Democratic and Republican supporters describe the proposal – large and monumental versus focused and limited – reflects the delicate politics surrounding the issue and the fragility of the coalition that has come together to try to break a stalemate of several years.

“This will undoubtedly save lives and would be the most significant anti-gun action the Senate has taken in nearly three decades,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, said on Tuesday. while acknowledging that the framework is far from everything Democrats want to achieve.

Shortly before, Senator John Cornyn, the Republican from Texas who played a crucial role in the talks, posted an oversized chart on the Senate floor titled “Ideas Rejected in Negotiations” as he carefully explained what what his party had agreed to and – just as importantly – what he didn’t. He noted that Democratic proposals rejected by Republicans included universal background checks, a ban on high-capacity magazines and a ban on assault weapons for 18 to 21-year-olds.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Minority Leader, said Tuesday he was “comfortable” with the bipartisan framework that had emerged and would support a final bill that would follow its parameters, another indication that the Republicans aim to hold together the coalition behind the deal and demonstrate to their colleagues that it would be politically safe to support it.

The effort is coming to a critical juncture, as negotiators from both sides scramble to translate a tentative agreement into legislative language that can draw 60 votes in the Senate. The measure under discussion would require enhanced background checks on potential gun buyers under the age of 21, make it harder for domestic abusers to obtain firearms, and provide federal grants to states to enact so-called red flag to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, among other measures.

Democrats entered negotiations two weeks ago with modest hopes, simply wanting to demonstrate that it was possible to break the impasse and pass some kind of gun safety legislation in the wake of a mass shooting, and conceding that it would have to be limited in order to attract enough Republican support to pass.

The political stakes were high, even if the expectations of a major breakthrough were not. As President Biden’s polls plummet as he struggles to advance most of his agenda, he and Democrats are desperate for a legislative victory to bolster his presidency and their prospects for the midterm congressional elections. .

At the same time, after the shooting of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Republicans recognized that they had to catch up with their own political reality: that the vast majority of voters, including including their own, support at least some gun safety measures, including enhanced background checks.

Yet they resisted a backlash on their right flank trying to play down the idea that they gave Democrats ground on the gun issue.

Appearing on Fox News this week, Mr Cornyn assured viewers that “states that do not have red flag laws will not be forced to pass them” and that the proposal did not include “any new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners”.

“Part of the problem we’ve had is that people are reading things into the bill that aren’t there, so it’s a process of explaining what’s in it and what isn’t. is not,” Mr. Cornyn said in a brief interview on Tuesday. .

It’s a matter of political necessity for Republicans as the right rallies against compromise. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, called the senators who signed up “spongy RINOs” — Republicans in name only — while the American Firearms Association, a gun rights group that collects funds against outrage over a potential deal, called the Republicans involved “treasonous bastards” who want to “disarm this whole country.”

A spokeswoman for former President Donald J. Trump said he was furious with Republicans who embraced the framework. “We need to stop these RINOs from joining the Democrats,” spokeswoman Liz Harrington said in an interview with conservative media, saying the red flag laws would turn the United States into “the Soviet Union.” .

(After back-to-back 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 the red flags, quite honestly,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said Tuesday after Cornyn previewed the emerging bill. in a closed meeting. door GOP Senate lunch.

Democrats have their own challenges staying united behind the proposal, as progressives have raised concerns about its limited scope and approach.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said she was concerned the proposal, which for the first time would allow law enforcement to review the mental and juvenile health records of gun buyers in fire under 21, does not lead to “criminalization”. children.

Mr Schumer tried to talk about everything the bill would do, noting the importance of improved background checks for people under 21 and closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, a long-standing priority for gun safety activists.

Yet critical points remain unresolved.

Mr. Cornyn told reporters on Wednesday that he was concerned that states without red flag laws would not be eligible to receive funds for crisis intervention programs. Democrats and Republicans have also hinted at disagreements over precisely who would be covered by closing the boyfriend loophole, which aims to include dating partners in a ban on domestic abusers getting guns. The prohibition currently applies to spouses.

“At some point, if we can’t get to 60, we’ll have to cut some of it,” Mr Cornyn said, warning that the bill’s drafting stage could stretch into next week.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, the top Democratic negotiator, said he didn’t expect anything in the framework to fall out of the final bill and was confident it would. adopted.

As they push differing messages about what the gun deal would and wouldn’t do, Democrats and Republicans have a legitimate point to make.

Because the bar for a historic breakthrough on guns in Congress is low — there hasn’t been significant federal gun legislation passed since 1993 — a small gesture still counts as a major moment.

This dynamic may be unsatisfying for Democrats frustrated with having to accept incremental progress and enacting only a fraction of the policies they believe would save lives, but it could be a political win-win for them, the leaders said. strategists.

“They have a major achievement to tell, and they still have plenty of ground for a very fertile debate about what else needs to be done to address gun violence and mass shootings,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “The reality of Senator Cornyn’s position is that the provisions that Republicans have kept out of the bill are very popular with the vast majority of voters. These are the policies that are going to be contested in the midterm elections.

And while the difference in emphasis may reflect how divided the country is over guns, some said it was also a sign of progress.

“The way Republicans and Democrats are communicating this message tells me that they are really committed to doing something,” said James P. Manley, former senior adviser to former Majority Leader Senator Harry. Reid.

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