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John Cornyn Takes Center Stage During Gun Control Talks
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John Cornyn Takes Center Stage During Gun Control Talks

The Texas Republican was chosen by Mitch McConnell to lead bipartisan negotiations on gun control legislation.

It’s a frequent occurrence in Washington, with few exceptions: When tragedy strikes, so does partisan finger-pointing. The name of the game this week is gun control.

“I support the bipartisan efforts that include a small group of Democrats and Republican senators trying to find a way,” President Joe Biden said in a sobering address to the American people last week in the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. “But my God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”

“We can’t fail the American people again,” he added in a fiery speech that also called for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, among other progressive gun control measures.

Tensions are still high amid a flurry of activity in Washington this week after the pair of mass shootings rocked the nation. But despite partisan rhetoric, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas thinks pragmatism is the only pathway forward for gun control legislation, and that Democrats must be willing to compromise if they hope to win over support from Republicans in the 50-50 Senate. 

“If we are going to come up with a solution, it is going to have to come from the Senate and, frankly, I think the White House understands that,” Cornyn, who was chosen by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to spearhead the bipartisan talks, told the New York Times last week. “The president is not necessarily a unifying figure in today’s politics.”

The clock is ticking for Cornyn, Republicans’ lead negotiator on gun control legislation in the aftermath of the shootings, to strike a deal before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer proceeds to a promised vote on more progressive gun control legislation. The Texas Republican is leading bipartisan negotiations alongside Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well as moderate GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The group has yet to strike a deal but plans to hash out more details again later Friday.

Democrats are watching with interest. “Sen. Cornyn has an A-plus rating from the NRA, and I am very concerned about what decision he will make here,” Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in an interview Wednesday.

For years, progressive demands for sweeping gun control legislation have faced a brick wall of Republican opposition in both chambers who argue that proposals to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines would unfairly punish law-abiding gun owners and would do little to prevent horrific mass shootings in a country with an estimated 400 million guns. 

This time around, Cornyn hopes he can meet the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold by keeping the focus on narrow issues like school safety, mental health, and potentially incorporating juvenile criminal records in the FBI’s background checks process. Cornyn has also signaled to reporters in recent days that other more progressive measures, like banning assault weapons and increasing the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21 years old, aren’t being seriously considered in the talks at the moment, given they are unlikely to win much buy-in from Senate Republicans.

“We were briefed at a 35,000 foot level during lunch today about what the group is talking about,” GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told The Dispatch Tuesday afternoon. “They’re not anywhere close to having a bill.” 

Kennedy also lamented that negotiators only seem interested in concentrating on “what I call the mass shootings by angry young men,” and said he hopes negotiators will also concentrate on another major contributor to America’s gun violence epidemic—gang shootings.

As the bipartisan group continues to craft together a deal, Republican senators maintain confidence that Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee who previously served on the Texas Supreme Court and as Senate GOP whip, is a natural pick to spearhead these negotiations, particularly given his position as the senior senator from the Lone Star State, where a gunman fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last month.  

He’s also got a record to show on the issue, having successfully led the legislative effort in 2017 and 2018 to codify the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill that bolstered existing background checks on the federal and state level.

“John’s done a lot of work on the issue, and he’s on Judiciary—it’s the committee’s jurisdiction,” GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said in an interview. “Probably the best, most qualified guy to do it.”

“He is the perfect choice to actually look through those laws,” GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said on Tuesday of Cornyn. “He has a working knowledge of the technical portions of these discussions with regard to what is required for appropriate protections under the Second Amendment.”

Even some Democrats are bullish that a Cornyn-led effort to enact modest gun control will make it to the president’s desk. “After so many years I’m sort of skeptical about whether we get to 60 votes,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said in an interview Tuesday. “We will have more of a chance with Sen. Cornyn leading the effort on the Republican side than virtually anybody else.”

That said, more progressive Democratic senators fear that Cornyn will force Democrats to come up short on more sweeping legislation like the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” a House-passed gun control package that would ban high capacity magazines and raise the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21, among other measures. 

Five House Republicans voted in favor of the bill on Tuesday, though only one of them—Rep. Brain Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania—is seeking reelection in November. The other four, GOP Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Chris Jacobs of New York, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, are all retiring. Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon were the only House Democrats to vote against. 

That package is expected to be dead on arrival in the Senate, as is the red flag law that House Democrats passed Thursday in a mostly party line vote. 

Also this week, Sinema briefed members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus on the progress of the Senate negotiations. Problem Caucus Solver member and GOP Rep. Don Bacon called the Wednesday briefing “promising” and said that House Republicans who were in the room seemed enthusiastic about the ongoing negotiations. “The Senate [has] become the center of gravity for governance,” Bacon told The Dispatch.

Even though good faith negotiations are still underway, time is running out before Schumer moves on a promised vote on more progressive legislation that is unlikely to win any Republican support. “He’s threatened to do it, but I don’t believe we ought to try to meet artificial deadlines,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Monday.

Schumer often holds show votes to let constituents know where their lawmakers stand on certain issues—code for keeping a record of Republican votes on controversial issues and providing campaign fodder ahead of the midterms. Late last year, for example, he forced votes on Build Back Better and voting rights-related filibuster reform knowing full well that the proposals wouldn’t win any support from Republicans, let alone Sinema and her fellow centrist Democratic thorn in Schumer’s side—Joe Manchin of West Virginia. 

“Schumer [is] under a lot of pressure, I imagine,” a senior Senate Republican staffer told The Dispatch Wednesday. But that understanding came with a warning: In the event that Schumer goes the show-vote route, the staffer said, Republicans are all but guaranteed to leave the negotiating table.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.