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McConnell says he’ll likely back gun deal as Senate rushes toward vote

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Washington on June 14. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)
4 min

A tentative bipartisan deal to toughen federal gun laws picked up momentum in the Senate on Tuesday after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lent public support to a framework that negotiators released this week.

McConnell’s backing provided further evidence that the current round of gun-law negotiations, which kicked off after last month’s deadly shooting inside a Texas elementary school, might just have what previous attempts at bipartisan compromise did not — sufficient GOP support to overcome a filibuster.

Ten Republicans, led by Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), signed the framework released Sunday — giving the tentative deal the bare minimum of GOP support needed to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold, assuming all 50 members of the Democratic caucus end up supporting the legislation. The backing of McConnell (Ky.) suggests a larger group of perhaps a dozen more Republicans is in play for the legislation, which would represent the most significant new federal gun restrictions since the mid-1990s.

“I’m comfortable with the framework, and if the legislation ends up reflecting what the framework indicates, I’ll be supportive,” McConnell told reporters Thursday.

Also signaling tentative support Tuesday was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate who frequently backs bipartisan deals but who is also seeking reelection this year in a historically pro-gun-rights state. Murkowski described the framework as “fairly reasonable” and said she was “encouraged” by the progress Tuesday. But like other Republicans, she said she would review text of the bill before making a final decision.

It remained unclear Tuesday when that text would be completed, though key Senate players signaled optimism that it could be done by the end of the week — setting up votes on the Senate floor next week, just before lawmakers are set to leave Washington for a July 4 holiday recess. The legislation would then move to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has indicated it will pass.

“We want to pass it before recess, and we’re going to do everything we can,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), who led negotiations for Democrats alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), said that while the drafting process was not complete, “the heavy lifting is done” and that the framework deal was not at risk of unraveling. “I’m confident that we can get there and get there soon,” he said.

But there were signs on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that deal adherents were taking care to make sure a backlash did not materialize. Cornyn went to the Senate floor before a party lunch to clarify one provision of the framework deal that has raised alarms among staunch conservatives — a new federal program that would provide grants to allow states to implement “red-flag laws,” which allow authorities to seize guns from people determined to represent a potential violent threat.

The grant program, Cornyn said, would not seek to coerce or even incentivize states that do not currently have red-flag laws to adopt them. In fact, he said, the money could be used for other programs related to mental health crisis interventions that have no firearms component whatsoever, while states that do use the funds to establish red-flag laws would be subject to “a full set of due process and Bill of Rights protections.”

“I don’t support any prescriptive mandates or national mandates at all,” Cornyn said.

Inside the lunch, Cornyn presented polling data from a survey of gun owners that showed broad support for the provisions in the deal, including helping states to implement red-flag laws, making a larger group of domestic violence offenders ineligible to buy guns, and including juvenile justice and mental health records in gun buyer background checks for the first time.

The deal released Sunday couples those gun restrictions with funding for mental health and school security that could total $10 billion or more.

Cornyn also emphasized the gun restrictions that did not make it into the deal — such as raising the minimum age for rifle purchases, banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and implementing safe-storage requirements for gun owners — according to a copy of the presentation reviewed by The Washington Post.

A discussion ensued, focused heavily on red-flag laws, lunch attendees said, and several Republicans emerged from the room clearly reticent to embrace the deal — particularly in an election year where GOP support for gun restrictions could depress conservative voter turnout.

“I think we’re more interested in the red wave than we are in red flags, quite honestly, as Republicans,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said while leaving the lunch.

Moments later, however, McConnell gave the bipartisan framework an unmistakable boost, calling it a “step forward” that would “demonstrate to the American people that we can come together, which we have done from time to time on things like infrastructure and postal reform, to make progress for the country.”