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Senators seize on bipartisan gun deal, facing long odds


WASHINGTON — After the deadliest school shooting in a decade, a small group of Republican and Democratic senators have begun an urgent and difficult effort to find a compromise on new gun laws, expressing hope that a wave of collective outrage over the massacre of 19 children and two teachers may finally conquer a decade of congressional paralysis.

Members of the bipartisan group emerged from a private meeting on Thursday determined to work quickly to try to reach agreement on modest measures to limit access to guns. They agreed to spend the Memorial Day break considering a number of proposals, including ways to urge states to pass so-called red flag laws aimed at removing firearms from potentially dangerous people and expanding the criminal background checks on gun buyers.

“We are at a point in this debate and in the trajectory of gun violence where we need something,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who is leading the talks. “We have to show progress. People are scared. And so I’m probably much more willing to accept something smaller and bigger, but progressive, than I was a few months after Sandy Hook.

The massacre 10 years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut had grim parallels to the carnage that unfolded this week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The Sandy Hook shooting prompted an almost identical set of calls to action and expressions of bipartisan resolve on Capitol Hill, ultimately bringing Congress to the brink of enacting bipartisan background check legislation in 2013. But the measure failed in the Senate, with a majority of Republicans. and a few Democrats in the opposition.

“Times are changing,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania and sponsor of this bill, on Thursday. “And there’s a possibility that might work this time.”

Leaders of both parties have signaled tentative support for the effort, though they have sounded strong notes of skepticism after years of failed congressional attempts to address gun violence — each of them following the same cycle of criticism. indignation and optimism for an agreement leaving room for partisan division. and finally defeat.

Democrats said they would only allow the talks to go on so long before insisting Republicans, who have opposed or blocked successive efforts to pass gun control measures, vote On the question.

“We are under no illusions that this will be easy – we have been burned in the past when Republicans have promised to debate only for them to break their promise,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “But even with long probabilities, the issue is so important, so raw to the American people, so personal to countless families who have missing children, that we must seize this opportunity.”

“Make no mistake about it,” he added, “if these negotiations do not bear fruit in a short period of time, the Senate will pass gun safety legislation.”

In an indication that Republicans believe the talks could potentially lead to a deal, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said he had asked Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a close ally, to speak to Mr. Murphy and other Democrats working on a deal.

“I hope we can find a bipartisan solution directly related to the facts of this horrific massacre,” McConnell told CNN. He added: “I will keep in touch with them, and hopefully we can get a result that can actually pass and become law, rather than just scoring points back and forth.”

Mr. Cornyn’s involvement signaled that Mr. McConnell intends to follow the discussions closely, giving him the means to intervene if he deems it necessary to try to stifle a deal he sees as politically dangerous or steer the talks toward something Republicans might accept. .

In a stark reminder of the vast divide between the two parties on how to deal with mass shootings in the United States, Republicans on Thursday blocked legislation proposed by Democrats to strengthen the federal government’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism. .

Democrats pushed the measure through the House last week following a racist massacre in Buffalo in which a gunman motivated by white supremacist ideology killed 10 black people in a supermarket.

The bill, known as the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, would create three new offices — one in the FBI, one in the Department of Justice and one in the Department of Homeland Security — to monitor, investigate and prosecute terrorism. national. This would require semi-annual reports assessing the domestic terrorist threat posed by white supremacists, with particular emphasis on combating “white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of uniformed services”.

It was first introduced in 2017, but Democratic leaders moved quickly to resurrect it after the Buffalo shooting. In this shootout, the shooter appears to have been inspired by the white supremacist “great replacement” theory, according to which Western elites plot to disempower white people by replacing them with people of color.

After the school shooting in Uvalde this week, Democratic leaders touted the domestic terrorism bill as the best way to move quickly on gun violence prevention measures. Schumer promised to allow debate on both parties’ proposed changes to the bill to address gun violence if Republicans allow him to go ahead.

But in a party vote, Senate Republicans rejected even considering the measure, arguing that the bill was unnecessary and defined extremism in a way that could be interpreted too broadly by critics. law enforcement. The vote was 47 to 47, leaving Democrats short of the 60 votes needed to push the bill forward.

Its failure meant the Senate went into Memorial Day recess without any legislative action to deal with the two mass shootings.

Democrats have instead staked their hopes for gun safety legislation in bipartisan negotiations led by Mr. Murphy. Several senators said they would rather see if there was a deal to be done before taking another pre-determined vote on doomed legislation in an evenly divided Senate.

“We have all made our position clear on individual laws many times in this place,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico. “What we haven’t done is pass laws very often, so I’m just trying to be open-minded.”

Mr. Murphy, who had asked Mr. Schumer for time to continue the negotiations, hosted a group of senators in his hidden office in the basement of the Capitol on Thursday, including several veterans of the unsuccessful negotiations on gun legislation. .

In an interview later that day, Mr. Murphy conceded he was embarking on a difficult task: trying to find a solution to gun violence that 10 Republicans could support, enough to break up a filibuster.

“We’re trying to get enough Republicans in the room, maybe not to guarantee us 60 votes, but to give us a much better chance,” he said. “And we are also realistic.”

Republicans present at the meeting included Mr. Toomey and Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; another Republican, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, called. Other Democrats present included Mr. Heinrich and Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Attendees insisted that the gutting images of Uvalde had created a new sense of urgency.

“It looks different,” Mr. Manchin said, nearly a decade after he teamed up with Mr. Toomey on background check legislation that failed to clear a filibuster in the Senate. He added: “I’ve never been in that mindset. I can’t get my grandchildren out of my head.

The list of options senators are considering is narrower and more progressive than gun safety measures Democrats and activists have called for in the past, such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines .

Mr. Graham, for example, said he was focused on creating a grant program to incentivize states to enact red flag laws, which aim to prevent potentially dangerous people from having firearms. fire. A federal red flag law, he said, would be a failure.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a hard-line Republican, has also engaged in recent days with Democrats on red flag laws, Murphy said.

Senators also discussed steps to expand background checks and provide additional support for school safety, an issue Republicans have focused heavily on in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.

Talks were expected to continue during the recess, with senators breaking into groups to discuss specific issues.

“We’re starting to try to figure out if there’s a path to consensus,” Mr. Toomey said, “and we’ll see where that takes us.”

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