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Senate begins search for bipartisan gun deal after Schumer’s green light

Chuck Schumer is giving long-shot gun safety negotiations a chance. Kyrsten Sinema is reaching out to Republicans on a path forward. And GOP senators are answering Chris Murphy’s call for new bipartisan talks.

Betting on a 50-50 Senate to cut a deal responding to the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school just five months before the midterms is still a long shot. But there’s enough will among Senate Democrats to at least give it a go, rather than force sure-to-fail votes intended to put Republicans on defense.

Instead of bringing up House-passed background checks legislation that Republicans and possibly a Democrat or two would block, Schumer instead is holding out hope that the latest mass shooting will finally unstick a bipartisan deal. On Wednesday, he told his top deputy, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), that he was going to give Murphy (D-Conn.), Sinema (D-Ariz.) and other deal-seeking Democrats some space to test the waters with Republicans, one last time.

“It’s the only approach that will result in law,” Durbin said. “I talked to him this morning. He said if there’s even the possibility of getting bipartisanship we’ll try to find it.”

Schumer castigated the GOP in a fiery floor speech on Wednesday for its “obeisance to the NRA,” saying that “too many members on that side care more about the NRA than they do about families who grieve victims of gun violence.” He said that while he sympathized with Democrats who want to hold Republicans accountable via a quick vote on gun safety legislation, voters already know where Republicans stand.

For a majority leader never shy about forcing Republicans to reject legislation, Schumer’s tactics on gun safety reflect a Democratic caucus hungry for success on responding to mass shooters. Still, Schumer pledged later Wednesday that at some point “we are going to vote on gun legislation,” asking for Republicans to advance a domestic terrorism bill and amend it.

In the immediate term, Murphy says he doesn’t need votes on gun legislation he knows will fail — a view shared by many Democrats. Holding a failed vote now would certainly cool any possible cross-aisle deal-making. At a chairs’ lunch, Schumer told Democrats he wants Republicans to actually engage in bipartisan talks.

“I’m going to start having conversations again with colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Sinema told reporters on Wednesday morning — a rare holding forth for the reserved senator, further demonstrating the emotion and urgency coursing through the Capitol on Wednesday. “If there is a chance for us to do something to help make it safer for kids in this country, we owe it to the country to do it for real, not just talking points.”

Sinema promptly went to talk to Republicans on the Senate floor. And, behind the scenes, Murphy had already been in touch with both Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a duo more amenable to finding common ground with Murphy.

The killer “appears to have had a history of mental illness and of being increasingly erratic and violent,” said Collins, whose home state has a law allowing police to seize weapons from people deemed a threat by medical professionals, typically known as a red flag law. “That’s the kind of situation in which a yellow or red flag law is intended to prevent.”

Collins also mentioned her previous work to cut down on straw buyers and to prevent people on the terrorism watch list from buying firearms. Toomey remains focused on expanding background checks, the centerpiece of a 2013 effort with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that failed to clear the Senate.

“The thing that would have the best chance would be the thing that’s got Republican support before, which is expanding background checks,” said Toomey, who is retiring at the end of the year. Notably, Collins and Toomey are the only Republicans left in the Senate who supported that bill nine years ago.

Schumer’s decision to let things play out, however much he doubts actual success, reflects a caucus that would prefer even modest legislation over what he called “accountability votes.”

“My Republican colleagues can work with us now. I think it’s a slim prospect. Very slim, all too slim. We’ve been burnt so many times before. But this is so important,” Schumer said. “We must pursue action and even ask Republicans to join us again.”

After Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came to the Senate floor and said he was “sickened and outraged” about the shooting, Schumer came back and asked McConnell to advance a domestic terrorism bill slated to get a vote on Thursday. That legislation was Democrats’ response to a racist shooter who killed 10 people and injured three last week in Buffalo.

McConnell declined to comment on Schumer’s remarks.

Schumer had previously vowed to put House-passed legislation that expands background checks on the Senate floor, but to date the chamber has not considered gun-specific legislation. Murphy — whose gun safety advocacy stems from the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter who killed 20 children and six adults in his state in 2012 — sought bipartisan conversations with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) earlier in this Congress, though the two never had a breakthrough. They did work together on the successful “Fix NICS” gun law, which improved records and information-sharing in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

And the scope of whatever can pass the Senate this year is probably limited. Getting Republican support for anything dealing with guns will be a challenge, even if the legislation remains narrow.

“I have interest in grappling with what can be done. I really don’t think the answer is gun control,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “This happens in states with very, very severe gun control laws, and it happens in states that have fewer restrictions. This is a societal problem.”

The window may be relatively short for action, since any bipartisan deal would require at least 10 GOP votes and many Republicans are already eyeing a Senate takeover in November. Moreover, the GOP is expected to take back the House — making any additional votes on gun legislation unlikely next year.

When Democrats controlled the Senate in 2013, most Republicans and four moderate Democrats voted to filibuster a bipartisan background checks expansion written by Manchin and Toomey. And a bipartisan effort to respond to mass shootings was abandoned in 2019 as Democrats sought to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Both Manchin and Sinema, stalwart defenders of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation, rebuffed initial efforts to get rid of the filibuster specifically for gun safety legislation. Manchin warned it could be used by Republicans in the near future to reverse Democratic legislation, and Sinema said: “I don’t think that D.C. solutions are realistic here.”

But Manchin was plainly frustrated that he hasn’t seen more Republicans willing to compromise with him. Manchin himself was an unlikely gun dealmaker in 2013, having been endorsed by the NRA and literally shooting a climate change bill in a 2010 ad.

“We have Republicans and Democrats that have the same feelings I have. This is the most excruciating pain that you could ever endure,” Manchin said of the families dealing with the death of their children. “If that doesn’t move you, nothing will.”

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