Senate Democrats are ready to drop some of their most pressing demands to restrict access to guns amid the nationwide onslaught of deadly massacres — but even that may not be enough to reach a deal with Republicans.
“I’m certainly prepared for failure,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat helping lead the talks, told CNN on Thursday. “I’ve been here enough times to know that this is probably the most politically complicated and emotionally fraught piece that Congress deals with.”
Murphy, who is part of a bipartisan group of senators working behind the scenes to respond to deadly gun-related massacres nationwide, acknowledged in an interview that any accord would have to be “incremental” in order to win at least 10 Republicans to break a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate – even as he expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by next week.
“I’ve also heard Republicans make clear that as long as we’re not talking about doing everything at once, as long as we’re talking about more incremental but significant changes, they’re open,” said Murphy, who has been briefing President Biden on the state of the talks.
Indeed, as House Democrats plan to move forward with a bill to ban so-called assault weapons, Senate Democrats are not even discussing a ban on firearms such as AR-15s, the high-powered rifle used in the Texas elementary school massacre and a spate of mass shootings. They are also conceding that a bipartisan bill to expand background checks on commercial firearm sales will have to be narrowed, even as the House passed a bill last year to mandate universal background checks on all commercial sales and private transfers as well.
And sources in both parties told CNN that a push to raise the age to 21 for purchasing semi-automatic rifles has yet to gain much traction in Senate talks, as Republican opposition to the idea begins to mount and Democrats are uncertain whether such an idea can win the necessary 60 votes to break a filibuster.
“That’s hard to see,” one GOP source said of raising the age to 21 for purchasing the weapons.
“Not gonna happen,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a chief GOP negotiator, tweeted about imposing new restrictions on guns, though his office declined to specify what he meant.
Asked last week about raising the age to 21 for buying the powerful guns, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis – a Republican involved in the bipartisan talks – was skeptical.
“When I think of that, I think, do we take a look at the age you can enlist in the military?” Tillis said. “So there are a lot of complexities to that question.”
Indeed, even after the Democratic concessions on gun control, senators say, the prospects that bipartisan talks could collapse in the coming days are very real.
“There’s still significant work to do and hurdles to overcome,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who is heavily involved in the bipartisan talks.
Murphy and Blumenthal have been here before – ever since the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in their home state of Connecticut. And even soon after the murder of 20 young children and six adults there, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance a bill by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to mandate background checks on firearm sales at gun shows and over the Internet.
Numerous legislative efforts in the wake of many subsequent mass shootings have also floundered, including an effort by Murphy to revive the Manchin-Toomey bill last year by simply closing the so-called gun show loophole and leaving out background checks on Internet sales altogether. But despite Murphy’s talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham on the matter last year, the renewed push never materialized into a deal.
“It’s too broad,” the South Carolina Republican told CNN when asked if he could get behind the Manchin-Toomey plan in the aftermath of last week’s Uvalde, Texas, massacre.
Yet even so, senators are reengaging in talks in a way different than other mass shootings given the scale of the Uvalde massacre, with the murder of 19 children and two adults at Robb elementary school – at the hands of an 18-year-old with an AR-15. Senators say a deal must be reached by sometime next week, or nothing will get done – again.
“I think next week is critical,” Murphy said, given that senators have been at home during this week’s recess and return to Washington next week. “My hope is that we’ll have a product for both Republicans and Democrats to look at when we return. And that will give us a sense as to whether we can get this passed. Every day that goes by I’m more optimistic. But I don’t think we’ll really know until everybody gets back in town.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed reporting to this post.