WASHINGTON — After the deadliest school shooting in a decade, a small group of Republican and Democratic senators have begun an urgent and uphill effort to strike a compromise on new gun laws, voicing hope that a wave of collective outrage at the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers could finally end a decade of congressional paralysis.
Members of the bipartisan group emerged from a private meeting Thursday determined to work quickly to try to reach a deal on modest steps to limit access to guns. They agreed to spend the Memorial Day recess examining a number of proposals, including ways to incentivize states to pass so-called red flag laws aimed at taking firearms away from potentially dangerous people and expanding criminal background checks for gun buyers.
“We’re at a point in this debate and in the trajectory of gun violence where we need something,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who is spearheading the talks. “We need to show progress. People are frightened. And so I’m probably much more willing to accept something smaller and important, but incremental, 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 with the carnage that unfolded this week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The Sandy Hook shooting prompted a nearly identical set of calls for 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 opposition.
“Times change,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a sponsor of that bill, said Thursday. “And there’s a possibility that might work this time.”
Leaders in both parties signaled tentative support for the effort, even as they sounded heavy notes of skepticism after years of failed attempts by Congress to address gun violence — each of them following the same cycle of outrage and optimism for a deal giving way to partisan division and, finally, defeat.
Democrats said they would allow the talks to play out for only so long before they would insist that Republicans, who have opposed or blocked successive efforts at enacting gun control measures, take votes on the issue.
“We are under no illusions that this will be easy — we have been burned in the past when Republicans promised to debate only for them to break their promise,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “But even with long odds, the issue is so important, so raw to the American people, so personal to countless families who have missing children, that we must pursue that opportunity.”
“Make no mistake about it,” he added, “if these negotiations do not bear fruit in a short period of time, the Senate will vote on gun safety legislation.”
In an indication that Republicans believe the talks could potentially yield an agreement, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said he had asked Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a close ally, to talk to Murphy and other Democrats working on a deal.
“I am hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution that’s directly related to the facts of this awful massacre,” McConnell told CNN. He added, “I’m going to keep in touch with them, and hopefully, we can get an outcome that can actually pass and become law, rather than just scoring points back and forth.”
Cornyn’s involvement signaled that McConnell intends to keep close tabs on the discussions, giving him the means to intervene if he deems it necessary to try to squelch a deal he regards as politically dangerous or steer the talks toward something that Republicans could accept.
In a stark reminder of the vast gulf between the two parties on how to address mass shootings in the United States, Republicans on Thursday blocked legislation put forward by Democrats to strengthen the federal government’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism.
Democrats pushed the measure through the House last week in the wake of a racist massacre in Buffalo, New York, 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 establish three new offices — one each in the FBI, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security — to monitor, investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism. It would require biannual reports assessing the domestic terrorism threat posed by white supremacists, with a particular focus on combating “white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services.”
It was first introduced in 2017, but Democratic leaders moved quickly to resurface it following the shooting in Buffalo. In that shooting, the gunman appeared to have been inspired by the white supremacist “great replacement” theory, which holds that Western elites are plotting to disempower white people by replacing them with people of color.
After the school shooting in Uvalde this week, Democratic leaders framed the domestic terrorism bill as the best vehicle for quick action on gun violence prevention measures. Schumer promised to allow debate on proposed changes to the bill from both parties to address gun violence if Republicans allowed it to move forward.
But in a party-line vote, Senate Republicans rejected even considering the measure, arguing that the bill was unnecessary and defined extremism in a way that could be too broadly construed by law enforcement. The vote was 47-47, leaving Democrats short of the 60 votes needed to move forward on the bill.
Its failure meant that the Senate left for the Memorial Day recess without any legislative action to address the two mass shootings.
Democrats have instead staked their hopes for gun safety legislation on the bipartisan negotiations led by Murphy. Multiple senators said their preference was to see if there was a deal to be had before taking another preordained vote on legislation that is doomed to fail in an evenly divided Senate.
“We’ve all made it clear where we stand on individual legislation many times in this place,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “What we haven’t done is passed legislation very damn often, so I’m just trying to be open-minded.”
Murphy, who had asked Schumer for time to pursue negotiations, hosted a group of senators in his basement hideaway office in the Capitol on Thursday, including multiple veterans of failed negotiations over gun legislation.
In an interview later in the day, Murphy conceded that he was embarking on a difficult task: trying to find a solution for gun violence that 10 Republicans could support, enough to break a filibuster.
“We’re trying to put enough Republicans in the room, maybe not so that we’re guaranteed 60 votes, but so that we have a much better shot at it,” he said. “And we’re also being realistic.”
The Republicans at the meeting included Toomey and Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; another Republican, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, called in. Other Democrats in attendance included Heinrich and Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Participants insisted that the gutting images from Uvalde had created a new sense of urgency.
“This feels different,” Manchin said, nearly a decade after he partnered with Toomey on the background check legislation that failed to clear a Senate filibuster. He added: “I’ve never been in this frame of mind. I can’t get my grandchildren out of my mind.”
The slate of options that senators are considering is narrower and more incremental than the gun safety measures that Democrats and activists have clamored for in the past, such as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Graham, for instance, said that he was focusing on creating a grant program to incentivize states to enact red flag laws, which are intended to restrict potentially dangerous people from having guns. A federal red flag law, he said, would be a nonstarter.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a hard-line Republican, has engaged with Democrats on red flag laws in recent days as well, Murphy said.
Senators have also been discussing measures to expand background checks and provide additional support for school security, an issue on which Republicans have focused heavily in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.
Talks were expected to continue over recess, with senators breaking into groups to discuss specific issues.
“We’re getting started to try to figure out if there is a path to getting to a consensus,” Toomey said, “and we’ll see where it takes us.”