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Gun talks will continue after Senate negotiators miss Thursday deadline

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Senators left Washington on Thursday with key elements still in dispute on a delicate bipartisan deal that could significantly expand federal gun laws for the first time in three decades.

The lack of firm agreement could foil leaders’ hopes of holding a Senate vote on a bill next week, and raised the prospect that a framework agreement released Sunday might not be able to be translated into a bill.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the top Republican negotiator, told reporters that he was “frustrated” about the lack of progress and tempered expectations that a deal could come together.

“I’m not as optimistic right now, but we’re continuing to work,” he said, leaving a meeting of the top four negotiators Thursday afternoon. He added: “We don’t have a deal about anything unless we have a deal about everything.”

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Later in the day, he left the Capitol to catch a flight back to Texas, indicating that the ball was in Democrats’ court: “At some point, you’ve just got to make a decision and when people don’t want to make a decision … you can’t accomplish the result. And that’s kind of where we are right now.”

But another Republican closely involved in the talks, Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), struck a more upbeat note and said a bill could be written as soon as Friday. And Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the top Democratic negotiator, told reporters he still expected a final deal to come together.

“It comes with a lot of emotions, it comes with political risk to both sides,” he said. “But we’re close enough that we should be able to get there.”

Many of those involved in the talks have viewed Thursday as a deadline to come to agreement on key provisions, allowing for final drafting to occur and for a final bill to be filed Friday. That would allow Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to begin the process of setting up votes for next week, allowing the legislation to be potentially passed ahead of a scheduled two-week recess.

But with no agreement on key sticking points Thursday, and most senators not returning to Washington until Tuesday, the timeline was in question.

“We need to work through the next 24 hours but … we are operating as if we’re bringing this bill to the floor,” Murphy said.

Among the toughest issues, senators and other people familiar with the talks said, is what is often called the “boyfriend loophole.” Under current federal law, domestic violence offenders who abuse their spouses or partners they have lived with or had a child with can be barred from purchasing firearms, even if the underlying offense was a misdemeanor.

The framework released Sunday proposed adding offenders who were in a “continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with their victim. But turning that broad definition into legislative language has proved difficult, senators said.

Republicans are wary of writing too general a definition out of concern that it could be used too broadly to deny people their constitutional right to bear arms. “This has got to be something other than, you know, one date,” Cornyn said.

GOP negotiators also have pressed for a court process that would allow those who have been denied a firearm under the domestic violence provision to petition a judge to restore their right to own a gun. But Democrats are resisting attempts to water down the language, which has been a priority of gun-control and women’s advocates for years.

“Everyone who’s convicted of a crime has an ability to get that expunged or set aside in state court,” Murphy said. “But you know, I just — I’m of the view that if you beat the hell out of your dating partner, and you end up getting convicted for that crime, there should be consequences.”

Tillis said negotiators were examining state definitions of dating relationships and expressed optimism that a compromise was within reach.

Another contentious provision — creating a federal grant program that would help states implement red-flag laws that allow authorities to keep guns away from people judged to represent a threat to themselves or others — appeared to be back on track after Cornyn on Wednesday raised concerns that the program would disfavor states who choose not to enact those laws, which have been opposed by many gun rights activists.

“The Republicans clearly want to make sure that there’s money available for states that don’t move forward with red-flag laws, and we’re going to find a way to do that in this bill,” Murphy said.

The bipartisan framework couples several modest gun provisions — the closing of the boyfriend loophole, the federal grants for red-flag laws and expanded background checks for the youngest gun buyers — with new funding for mental health treatment and school security.

While the negotiators expressed optimism after the framework was released Sunday — with Murphy going so far as to say “the heavy lifting is done” — a final agreement was always contingent on producing draft legislation that comported with the framework.

The continuing clash Thursday over the thorny details vexed Cornyn, who said a failure to move on the bill next week would leave the fate of the entire framework in question.

“At some point, you’ve got to put your pens down — or at least you pick your pens up and write it and quit jawboning about it,” Cornyn said.