With Cornyn in the Room, Senate Gun Talks Focus on Narrow Changes
WASHINGTON — Facing a nationwide disaster with a devastating human toll and entrenched partisan divisions, a small group of Senate Republicans and Democrats pushed ahead on high-stakes bipartisan talks that appeared unusually promising — proper till the second they collapsed.
“The rhetoric from Washington has been impressive,” lamented Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a key negotiator for the Republican Party. “But the results have been pathetic.”
The year was 2013, and Mr. Cornyn was speaking about immigration, a coverage space the place he had engaged in a number of rounds of bipartisan talks. But the senator, a four-term Texan, might simply as simply have been discussing the negotiations in which he’s at the moment a pivotal participant: an inconceivable spherical of talks amongst a small crew of Senate Republicans and Democrats to answer the epidemic of gun violence in America.
With these discussions reaching a important stage, Mr. Cornyn is taking part in a well-recognized position: the conservative Republican in a room of centrists who could make or break an settlement — and has each side guessing, to some extent, over which will probably be. His presence at the talks — for which he was handpicked by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority chief — implies that the far-reaching gun management measures that President Biden and high Democrats are searching for are off the desk from the begin.
“It has to be incremental,” Mr. Cornyn mentioned in an interview, rapidly dismissing Mr. Biden’s push for steps that would not go the Senate, akin to renewing a federal ban on assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazines or elevating the age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21 from 18.
“I don’t think it moved the needle,” Mr. Cornyn mentioned of the president’s speech final week. “If we are going come up with a solution, it is going to have to come from the Senate and, frankly, I think the White House understands that. The president is not necessarily a unifying figure in today’s politics.”
Neither is Mr. Cornyn. With a high ranking from the National Rifle Association, he’s seen with suspicion by liberal activists who’ve lengthy pressed for gun management laws and see a cautionary story in the senator’s involvement in previous immigration negotiations.
Proponents of legalizing hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and overhauling the system warn that he has perfected what one referred to as the “Cornyn con,” in which he seems to undertake critical coverage negotiations however in the end pulls out when success is at hand after which blames Democrats for being too partisan.
“The silver hair, the silver tongue, the moderate tone project seriousness; but his pattern is to be cynical and unserious,” mentioned Frank Sharry, the govt director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice. “He pretends he wants progress even as he undermines it.”
Democrats who’re main the gun talks insist that Mr. Cornyn’s involvement this time is completely different. To win his help, they concede, any new laws would should be a lot narrower than they would favor. But additionally they be aware that it was Mr. Cornyn who in 2017 teamed with Democrats to barter a bundle of enhancements in federal background checks after a lethal church taking pictures in his dwelling state.
“It was an example of Senator Cornyn’s ability to reach out across the aisle on a tough topic and find something that made a difference,” mentioned Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who’s main the gun talks for his celebration. The measure, often known as Fix NICS, inspired authorities entities to produce extra information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. A Navy document of the Texas church gunman’s court-martial for home violence had not been submitted, that means it was not caught in a overview for gun purchases.
Mr. Murphy and different Democrats concerned in the talks say their expertise with Mr. Cornyn offers them hope that some consensus could be discovered, in all probability centering round so-called pink flag legal guidelines that enable weapons to be seized from folks deemed to be harmful, in addition to psychological well being measures, faculty security funding and changes in background checks.
“He’s made it very clear what he is not willing to do, and now we are just exploring what is possible,” mentioned Mr. Murphy, who has change into a number one congressional voice on gun security after the 2012 Sandy Hook faculty shootings in his dwelling state. “He is not willing to infringe on law-abiding gun owners’ rights. He is not willing to ban weapons.”
“I’ve got a good sense of his no-go areas,” Mr. Murphy mentioned of Mr. Cornyn.
The Texan has made plain what he considers off-limits. When a conservative radio host posted a tweet warning that the senator may again extra restrictive gun legal guidelines, Mr. Cornyn recirculated the comment with a pointed response: “Not gonna happen.”
“This is a very divisive and emotional issue, but it is also a constitutional right we are talking about,” Mr. Cornyn mentioned in the interview. “I feel very strongly that law-abiding citizens are not the problem here. It is people with criminal and mental health problems.”
While suggesting that elevating the age to buy assault weapons wouldn’t clear the Senate, Mr. Cornyn mentioned one thought he was exploring with colleagues was whether or not juvenile information, which are sometimes sealed or expunged, might be added to the info out there for a background examine. He prompt that such an enlargement might have prevented the 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde from acquiring his weapon.
“Nothing that happened in his past was part of that background check,” Mr. Cornyn mentioned. “We are reaching out to see if there is maybe a mechanism that could make that information available, just like if they were an adult. They would either pass or not pass based on their criminal and mental health record. It is a real gap.”
Democrats and Republicans say that Mr. Cornyn’s backing is crucial to broaden help for laws, given his credibility along with his colleagues. He was the No. 2 Republican in the Senate for six years, till time period limits compelled him out in 2018. He is seen as a contender for Senate Republican chief every time Mr. McConnell steps apart.
“I think John is deeply motivated to come up with a common-sense set of reforms that would make a difference,” mentioned Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a participant in one set of gun security talks, noting that the Uvalde victims have been his constituents. “If we were successful in negotiating a package John can sign onto, it will almost certainly pass the Senate and bring us additional Republican votes.”
Elected in 2002 to fill an open seat, Mr. Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court decide and state lawyer common, cuts an affable determine on Capitol Hill. He is a definite distinction to his extra incendiary home-state counterpart, Senator Ted Cruz, who has summarily rejected new gun laws.
Mr. Cornyn is a pressure on the Judiciary Committee, the place he has been deeply engaged on nominations, legal justice overhauls and immigration coverage, the place compromise on a serious rewrite of legal guidelines has proved elusive.
Democrats credit score him with pulling off modest compromises akin to a current patent abuse invoice supposed to stop pharmaceutical corporations from conserving cheaper generic medicine from coming on the market. On weapons, he and Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, gained a provision in the Violence Against Women Act in March that requires federal authorities to inform native legislation enforcement when an individual fails a background examine in an effort to purchase a weapon.
“When he wants to reach common ground, he can,” mentioned Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who co-authored the patent invoice with Mr. Cornyn and can be a part of the bipartisan gun talks. “But the jury still out on this one.”
The talks being performed by Mr. Murphy are unfolding with two separate teams, certainly one of which incorporates Mr. Cornyn and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, with whom Mr. Cornyn has labored intently on immigration points.
Despite the Memorial Day recess, contributors mentioned that talks proceeded “dawn to dusk” in a drive to assemble laws as quickly as this week and that the congressional break didn’t appear to gradual momentum, because it has in the previous.
Given the historical past of failures on new gun proposals and the proven fact that Mr. Cornyn is seen as the gauge of what’s acceptable to Republicans, nobody is able to declare that an settlement could be reached. But they do say they see alternative.
“I am prepared to fail,” Mr. Murphy mentioned. “But every single day, we are getting closer to success, not farther away.”
Mr. Cornyn has not dedicated to something, however he says the negotiations are price the effort.
“Hope springs eternal,” he mentioned. “I’m happy to be involved in something that is so important that could, like our Fix NICS bill, save lives.”