The Coalition Behind the Gun Bill Reveals a Strong Republican Divide in the Senate

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Tuesday’s Senate vote to advance a narrow bipartisan agreement to toughen federal gun laws was, in a sense, a political miracle, with 14 Republicans joining Democrats in challenging the National Rifle Association and vocal conservative critics. In an election year, no less.

Viewed another way, however, strong Republican opposition to a bill that offered only comparatively incremental adjustments to existing gun laws after an escalating series of mass shootings demonstrated the resistance of hard-line views on gun rights. weapons and highlighted the decline of the body within. the Senate GOP that is willing to cut even modest deals with Democrats.

Tuesday’s 64-34 test vote, which put the bipartisan Secure Communities Act on track to pass later this week, offered a roadmap for how governing on sensitive issues can continue in a divided era, by far careful, with the right. players, and in the right circumstances.

No player was more crucial than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who appointed trusted leadership deputy Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) after the May 24 massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. , and he made it clear that the time had come, unlike in the past, for Republicans to come to an agreement on gun violence.

“This time it’s different,” McConnell said Wednesday, in a speech formally endorsing the deal Cornyn brokered. “This time, Democrats got in our way and agreed to promote some common sense solutions without rolling back the rights of law-abiding citizens. The result is a product that I am proud to support.”

McConnell, however, finds himself in the minority of a divided Republican conference, a position he usually tries to avoid.

Only 13 other Republicans backed the deal in Tuesday’s test vote, including three who will retire next year and six others who, like McConnell, will not run for re-election until 2026. Another pro-deal Republican who did not vote on Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), also withdraws.

Among the 34 Republicans who voted no on Tuesday were several members of McConnell’s leadership team, including Sen. John Thune (SD), the No. 2 Republican leader, and Sen. John Barrasso (Wyoming), the No. 3, and several senators. who have openly flirted with presidential races.

Some of those Republicans were among the most outspoken on Wednesday in publicly opposing the deal and warning of a backlash from conservatives that could drive the deal’s supporters out of power. One of them, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), summed up his constituents’ reaction to the bill as “rage.”

“People are absolutely furious that this bill does nothing meaningful to address the national crime wave. It does nothing meaningful to address the escalation of attacks against police and civilians,” he said. “I mean, in Missouri, we have record numbers of homicides, carjackings, violent crimes, and it’s everywhere. And this bill does nothing about it.”

After Cornyn made one final pitch to colleagues at a Senate Republican luncheon on Wednesday, emphasizing mental health and law enforcement funding in the bill, as well as tougher gun control provisions Left out, Barrasso and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) proposed voting for a different bill that eliminated gun measures entirely, focusing solely on mental health and school safety provisions.

A broader group of Senate conservatives also expressed public dismay, including Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who told reporters that his office phones were “lighting up” with calls that they were “disappointed that we had 14 Republicans voting for this… that we had the base of the Republicans that put this on top.”

When asked about McConnell’s role, he said, “There are a lot of disappointed people…everywhere.”

In the House, meanwhile, top leaders quickly distanced themselves from Senate negotiators: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Steve Scalise. (R-La.), told their members just hours after Tuesday’s Senate vote that they would oppose it.

A memo sent Wednesday from Scalise’s office to Republican lawmakers said the bill represents “an effort to slowly undermine the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens” and “does not contain sufficient safety measures.” to ensure that the money actually goes towards keeping guns out of the hands of criminals or preventing mass violence.”

“I’m 100 percent against it, 100 percent,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a prominent House conservative leader. “This is the wrong thing to do, and I hope it doesn’t happen.”

Addressing reporters Wednesday, McConnell said it was “not unusual” for members of his party to hold opposing views. “We see that often,” he said.

In fact, McConnell has blessed several bipartisan deals with Democrats since the GOP entered the Senate minority last year, including a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, a sweeping industrial policy bill meant to boost competitiveness. with China, a postal reform measure and more. In each case, McConnell and his allies said, the desire to show cooperation and progress on issues of public concern outweighed the political risks of handing Democrats a victory.

Gun violence, however, posed an especially potent test, and the Uvalde tragedy came at a particularly sensitive time, in the midst of a midterm primary season in which several Republican senators faced or are about to face primaries against more conservative challengers.

But McConnell’s allies said there was political logic to the decision to cut a modest deal with Democrats and show the public that the GOP is not an insurmountable obstacle to action to tackle mass shootings.

“I think the country wants us to find common ground in the area of ​​unstable people using guns, of trying to get better information into the system to stop some of these shootings,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C. ). “When it comes to 80 percent support for these ideas, that’s a national consensus. And, you know, the 20 percent: I respect their views, but when the public says, ‘Can’t they do something?’ The answer is yes.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.), who negotiated the bill with Cornyn, called the bill a “balanced policy” and argued that it actually short-circuits future gun control efforts by just as GOP support for the infrastructure bill likely prevented a much larger party-line Democrat bill.

“If you take a look at what we didn’t do: no mandatory waiting periods, no ban on any gun that can be purchased legally today… I think that’s reasonable and I think most Americans agree with that,” he said. he said she.

The political reality of Tuesday’s vote, however, was stark, with the deal supported primarily by Republican senators who are more insulated from electoral fallout. Even the two Republican senators who are running for re-election this year and voted to promote the deal on Tuesday reflect that fundamental dynamic: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is counting on crossover Democratic and independent voters to survive her re-election effort against a more conservative Republican challenger. , and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) walked out of the May 3 primary unopposed.

Young said Wednesday that it was not a guaranteed vote in favor of the final bill, saying he was still “digesting the real language.” But he praised the funding for mental health and school safety in the bill and called the gun provisions “pretty reasonable.” If a conservative reaction to the bill is brewing, he said, it was not reflected in his constituents’ comments.

“The calls are 10 to 1 in my office, 10 in favor of reasonable bans” on allowing dangerous people access to firearms, he said. “For me, it’s just listening to my constituents and being responsive, and occasionally the government really needs to do that, be responsive.”

However, voter pressure went in the opposite direction for Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), who expressed some openness to tightening gun provisions this month. On Wednesday, she said, Wyoming voters who contacted her office had turned “massively” against the pending deal.

“Everyone is concerned now about the violation of Second Amendment rights,” he said.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who voted against moving forward with the deal on Tuesday, summed up the message he received from voters as: “Stand firm. … Don’t give up, don’t make room for the Second Amendment.”

However, he declined to criticize McConnell or other Republicans for agreeing to the deal, predicting any political fallout among the GOP base would be fleeting: “I feel like we have a good team right now, that we’re together and we’re going to get in there and agree to disagree after this. And I think at the end of the day… people at home are so focused on inflation, the price of gas, that this is not a top 10 issue for them.”

Meanwhile, for many of the Republicans backing the deal, any electoral fallout is beside the point. “I’m not sure that’s good policy,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It will save lives, that’s why it’s good.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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