Are the Senate gun talks about to implode?

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Democrats are pushing to get a bill on the Senate floor ahead of the Independence Day recess next week, but there are serious doubts about whether or not that’s going to happen as negotiators have hit a stumbling block; a portion of the package that would expand the definition of a domestic violence misdemeanor to include “dating partners.” Federal law bars those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from legally purchasing or possessing a firearm, but the current federal definition encompasses spouses and family members. Democrats want to broaden that definition to include “dating partners” as well, but both Democrats and Republicans involved in the negotiations say the issue is more complicated than it may appear.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who has been leading the talks, described it as “a complicated question of state statutes and state charging practices.”

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said the boyfriend question was surprisingly complex.

“The surface explanation seems like it would be fairly simple, but I know that as they try to reduce it to legislative text, I think it’s gotten a little bit more uncomfortable,” said Thune, who is not directly involved in the negotiations.

… The final haggling has centered on the details of closing the boyfriend loophole, including the definition and whether those subject to the gun ban should be able to appeal. Negotiators also spent Thursday debating the red flag law funding and whether states that do not have such laws can receive money.

The impasse on the boyfriend loophole has become so sticky that Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a crucial player in the talks, said that the proposal could be dropped from the package altogether.

“We’re not ready to release any smoke, so we don’t have a deal yet,” Cornyn said, declaring “I’m not frustrated — I’m just done” as he left a private negotiating session that stretched into the afternoon Thursday.

Republicans want to limit the reach of the domestic violence provision, while Democrats want to write it broadly.

“There are many people who committed domestic violence who aren’t actually charged with domestic violence — they are charged with simple assault, but they unquestionably committed an act of domestic violence,” Murphy said. “We are at a pretty critical stage of the negotiation, and so I’m not going to share anything that jeopardizes our ability to land this.”

Senators are trying to find an agreement on how, exactly, to define “dating partner”, but that’s not the only hurdle. Some Republicans have said they also want to see a process to restore the right to own a firearm after a misdemeanor conviction, which opens up a host of new questions that must be resolved before the legislation can take final shape. Among them, how long before someone can apply to have their rights restored and who would be eligible for a restoration?

While Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who’s the lead Republican negotiator on the Senate package, has left Washington for the weekend, other negotiators say the talks will continue and Cornyn himself said he would be available to talk remotely with his colleagues as they try to hammer out an agreement. Still, Cornyn said on Thursday that it’s time to “fish or cut bait”, which suggests that if the talks drag out much longer they may end up collapsing entirely.

One of the other stumbling blocks that had emerged over the past couple of days dealt with the federal grants to states that impose or “improve” their “red flag” firearm seizure laws. Cornyn had suggested on Wednesday that states that don’t have “red flag” laws but do have other crisis intervention programs should be able to access those federal funds without putting the money towards establishing a “red flag” statute, and it sounds like Murphy is willing to give ground in order to get an agreement in place, with him telling the Washington Post on Thursday that “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.”

Meanwhile, Axios reports that criticism of the negotiations and the framework itself is growing louder among Senate Republicans.

Several senators feel they’ve been shut out of the negotiating process and kept in the dark about crucial details, and will be asked to take a politically tough vote without enough time to digest the bill.

  • One GOP senator, speaking to Axios on the condition of anonymity to be candid about his concerns, branded Cornyn’s approach: “Shut up, and vote.”
  • “There’s considerable unhappiness in the conference that we seem to be approaching a bill that will unite all the Democrats and divide the Republicans,” said another senior Republican with direct knowledge of the internal talks.
  • The senior Republican mentioned that Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked Cornyn during one lunch, “Are we focusing on gang violence and inner-city murders? And the response was, ‘No, we’re not focusing on that’ … And more than a few of us wondered why the hell not?”
  • “It would be prudent, and I think Sen. Cornyn knows this … it would be prudent to give senators plenty of time to read the bill and research the issues,” Kennedy told Axios.

 

As Axios points out, many of these senators are unlikely to agree to any legislation Cornyn and company manage to produce, and the agreement in principle came with the support of ten Republicans, which is enough to overcome the objections of the rest of the caucus.. as long as all ten sign on to the final text. The “senior Republican” quoted by Axios above is right, however, that whatever emerges is likely to get the full support of Senate Democrats but will be a much more divisive piece of legislation for the GOP, especially if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rushes the bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote before senators head home for the Fourth of July holiday.