The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bipartisan talks to forge a solution on gun violence

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who was Newtown’s congressman and a senator-elect when bullets ripped through Sandy Hook Elementary in late 2012, has toiled behind the scenes for years to forge some sort of agreement. 

After the Texas slaughter, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., greenlit the talks in an effort to get “a bipartisan solution and come up with a proposal, if possible, that’s crafted to meet this particular problem. 

McConnell is not interested in some sort of accord that results in a show vote or gives the sides the opportunity to score political points.

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Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks on a proposed Democratic tax plan at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks on a proposed Democratic tax plan at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

There’s a reason McConnell deputized Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for this endeavor. Not only is Cornyn from Texas, he’s the Lone Star State’s former attorney general. In 2018, Cornyn was also instrumental in attaching a provision to a big spending bill called the “Fix NICS Act.” 

NICS is shorthand for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The gunman from a 2017 Sutherland Springs, Texas, massacre slipped through the cracks. He was an Air Force veteran and should not have been allowed to purchase guns. Cornyn’s provision tightened the system after the Air Force didn’t enter the shooter’s information into the background system. 

Here are the most important reasons why Cornyn is key to this process: He’s the former Senate GOP whip. Cornyn is used to working with members to understand what they can support and what they can’t. It’s one thing to have senators Susan Collins, R-Maine; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on board willing to talk. The key is broadening the coalition 

“He (Cornyn) can reach members beyond that group,” one source close to the process said.

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It’s far from clear precisely what the lawmakers are working on. Cornyn and others have made it clear there won’t be a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. But there are lots of conversations about hardening schools, enhanced mental health procedures, red flag laws and even background checks.

The Senate is on recess until June 6 for the Memorial Day break. On one hand, the break would seemingly halt any momentum senators may have gathered to address the problem. But Murphy believes the recess may actually help in these circumstances

“It’s easier to work those issues outside of Washington,” Murphy told the press corps. “We love you guys. But sometimes it’s a little bit easier to negotiate with each other rather than negotiate through the Washington, D.C., press.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., arrives for a weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol in Washington March 8, 2022.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., arrives for a weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol in Washington March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This is why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is willing give the bipartisan coalition some breathing room to work on a plan. Perhaps ten days or so. But Schumer will, in fact, force some sort of gun-related vote on the floor if the working group comes away empty-handed.

Schumer and other Democrats feel pressure from the left to move and to do so quickly. After all, Democrats control the majority. And they’re taking heat.

“I’m sure you all have heard about the timing,” Greg Jackson of the Community Justice Action Fund said during a rally for gun control at the Capitol Thursday. “We’ve got to get the timing right. The timing right. The timing right. The American people do not believe (Sen. Schumer) is going to do anything about this.”

A survivor of gun violence himself, Jackson didn’t hold back, castigating the cooling-off period.

“Ten days to deal with the No. 1 cause of death for Black men?” Jackson ased. “Ten f—— days?” 

Regardless, Murphy is skeptical they can get a deal.

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“I don’t want to overstate my optimism,” said Murphy. “I’ve been Charlie Brown enough to know that, up until now, the football has been pulled out from under me every single time. Maybe this time is different.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce members of the select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol July 1, 2021.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce members of the select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol July 1, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is also willing to let the Senate work its will. The key is the Senate and if it can get an agreement. If the Senate can advance something, Pelosi will entertain it in the House. In the meantime, Pelosi’s content to advance a bill in early June “to establish extreme risk protection orders nationwide, which will help keep guns out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves or others.”

We may not know the focus of the bipartisan Senate talks. But the success or failure of any package hinges on three things: It’s about the math. It’s about the math. It’s about the math.

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Any prospective bill will need to secure 60 yea votes to overcome a filibuster. This is why negotiators hope to broaden the talks to get a substantial coalition of Democrats and Republicans. There’s a universe of 15 to 20 Republicans who may be willing to play ball on this. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas Nov. 5, 2021. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas Nov. 5, 2021.  (Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

More conservative members, like senators Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, may be out of reach. But there are many GOPers who aren’t. By the same token, liberal senators may also be unwilling to go along with a proposal that is narrow or doesn’t address assault weapons. So, progressive members like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., may be hard to bring into the fold.

Senators at the margins are, well, at the margins. They will suggest that any potential pact goes too far or doesn’t go far enough. This is Goldie Locks. Not too hot. Not too cold. But just right. Negotiators need to find common ground in the middle.

Don’t forget that a couple of gun measures scored more than 50 yeas after the Sandy Hook massacre. The Senate finally engineered a series of votes related to guns in April 2013, four months after the tragedy at Newtown. But while the proposals could score more than 50 yeas, nothing could get 60.

That said, if there’s no agreement in a week or so, Schumer will probably force a vote related to guns. It will fail to get 60 yeas. And then everyone will return to their corners.

 

Another mass shooting will have come and gone with a lot of talk but little action on Capitol Hill.

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