‘Prepared for failure’: Democrats confront reality on gun talks as senators search for ‘incremental’ deal with GOP

Jun 2, 2022, 4:14 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 7:27 pm

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 26: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) addresses a rally with fellow Senate Democrats an...

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 26: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) addresses a rally with fellow Senate Democrats and gun control advocacy groups outside the U.S. Capitol on May 26, 2022 in Washington, DC. Organized by Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and Students Demand Action, the rally brought together members of Congress and gun violence survivors to demand gun safety legislation following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Senate Democrats are ready to drop some of their most pressing demands to restrict access to guns amid the nationwide onslaught of massacres. But even that may not be enough to reach a deal with Republicans.

“I’m certainly prepared for failure,” Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat helping lead the talks, told CNN on Thursday. “I’ve been here enough times to know that this is probably the most politically complicated and emotionally fraught piece that Congress deals with.”

Murphy, who is part of a bipartisan group of senators working behind the scenes to respond to deadly gun-related attacks nationwide, acknowledged in an interview that any accord would have to be “incremental” in order to win at least 10 Republican votes to break a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate — even as he expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by next week.

“I’ve also heard Republicans make clear that as long as we’re not talking about doing everything at once, as long as we’re talking about more incremental but significant changes, they’re open,” said Murphy, who has been briefing President Joe Biden on the state of the talks.

Indeed, as House Democrats plan to move forward with a bill to ban so-called assault weapons, Senate Democrats are not even discussing a ban on firearms like AR-15s, the high-powered rifle used in the Texas elementary school massacre, and a spate of mass shootings. They are also conceding that a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks on commercial firearm sales will have to be narrowed, even as the House passed a bill last year to mandate universal background checks on all commercial sales and private transfers as well.

And sources in both parties told CNN that a push to raise the age to 21 for purchasing semi-automatic rifles has yet to gain much traction in Senate talks, as Republican opposition to the idea begins to mount and Democrats are uncertain whether it can win the necessary 60 votes to break a filibuster.

“That’s hard to see,” one GOP source said of raising the age to 21 for purchasing the weapons, even as federal law prohibits 18- to 20-year-olds from purchasing handguns.

“Not gonna happen,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a chief GOP negotiator, tweeted about imposing new restrictions on guns, though his office declined to specify what he meant.

Asked last week about raising the age to 21 for buying the powerful guns, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis — a Republican involved in the bipartisan talks — was skeptical.

“When I think of that, I think do we take a look at the age you can enlist in the military?” Tillis asked. “So there are a lot of complexities to that question.”

Indeed, even after the Democratic concessions on gun control, senators say, the prospects that bipartisan talks could collapse in the coming days are very real.

“There’s still significant work to do and hurdles to overcome,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who is heavily involved in the bipartisan talks.

Murphy and Blumenthal have been here before — ever since the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in their home state of Connecticut. And even soon after the murders of 20 young children and six adults there, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance a bill by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to mandate background checks on firearm sales at gun shows and over the internet.

Numerous legislative efforts in the wake of many subsequent mass shootings have also foundered, including an effort by Murphy to revive the Manchin-Toomey bill last year by simply closing the so-called gun show loophole and leaving out background checks on internet sales altogether. But despite Murphy’s talks with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on the matter last year, the renewed push to narrow the Manchin-Toomey bill never coalesced into a deal.

“It’s too broad,” Graham told CNN when asked if he could get behind the Manchin-Toomey plan in the aftermath of last week’s Uvalde, Texas, massacre.

Yet, even so, senators are reengaging in talks in a way different from other mass shootings given the scale of the Uvalde massacre, with the murders of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School — at the hands of an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style weapon. Senators say a deal must be reached by sometime next week or nothing will get done — again.

“I think next week is critical,” Murphy said, given that senators have been at home during this week’s recess and return to Washington next week. “My hope is that we’ll have a product for both Republicans and Democrats to look at when we return. And that will give us a sense as to whether we can get this passed. Every day that goes by I’m more optimistic. But I don’t think we’ll really know until everybody gets back in town.”

How the Senate talks are shaping up

The talks are centering on a narrower version of the Manchin-Toomey proposal — along with several other ideas. Blumenthal and Graham are engaged in renewed talks over incentives to bolster state laws empowering authorities to restrict gun access to individuals deemed a threat — referred to as red flag laws. There are ongoing talks, including between Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, to impose new rules on the trafficking of guns between states.

Republicans, including Cornyn and Tillis, are in talks over school safety provisions as well as ways to bolster the US mental health system. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, is involved in those talks as well.

Yet it’s far from clear how much money senators will propose to bolster mental health programs. And it’s also uncertain whether Republicans will demand that the costs of the programs be fully paid for by spending cuts or unused Covid-19 relief money — something that could cause Democrats to revolt.

Murphy said he didn’t yet know how the group would structure mental health provisions and how much it would cost.

“It’s all about what can get 60-plus votes in the Senate, and we’re working on that and that will have to do with the spending as well as the provisions,” Murphy said.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, said in his home state of Kentucky on Thursday that he wants a bipartisan deal “to target” the problem, which is “school safety and mental illness” and that it must be “consistent with the Second Amendment” — a different view from that of many Democrats, who see lax gun laws as the main culprit.

But with McConnell’s support critical to determining whether a deal can reach 60 votes in the Senate, Murphy viewed the GOP leader’s comments in a positive light.

“I’ve read carefully everything that Senator McConnell has said in the past 48 hours,” Murphy said. “And so far, I don’t read anything he said to foreclose the deal that is very focused on keeping weapons out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.”

Yet other issues could be left on the cutting room floor. There are ongoing talks, including between Blumenthal and Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, about safely storing firearms at residences. But there’s still a philosophical disagreement on how and whether to mandate certain approaches on storing the weapons, according to several sources.

Despite the skepticism among Republicans, Murphy would not rule out a deal on a ban on 18- to 20-year-olds purchasing semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s, given that has been a recurring characteristic of mass murderers, including in Uvalde.

But whether the Senate agrees to new age restrictions is highly uncertain.

“We’re certainly having a conversation about the fact that mass shooters tend to be of the same profile: young and male in their late teens and early 20s,” Murphy said of the Senate talks. “I don’t know what we’ll end up with, but I think there is an acknowledgment from everybody that a lot of these mass shooters tend to be of the same profile.”

Any deal, Murphy conceded, will be “far from perfect.” But he said that at the moment GOP interest on finding a deal has not waned.

“Too often they’ll be interested in talking for the first couple of days, and then it gets harder for my phone calls to be returned,” Murphy said of Republicans. “That’s not what’s happening this time. This time there is an earnestness of engagement from a cross-section of Republicans that’s mounting by the day.”

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‘Prepared for failure’: Democrats confront reality on gun talks as senators search for ‘incremental’ deal with GOP