Mitch McConnell needs 10 Republicans to support gun control legislation. Can he find them?

The numbers don’t add up yet – but if just enough Republicans start to break ranks, others might follow

Eric Garcia
Friday 27 May 2022 14:04
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<p>Mitch McConnell (right) and John Cornyn</p>

Mitch McConnell (right) and John Cornyn

Former House Speaker John Boehneronce said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “holds his feelings, thoughts and emotions in a lockbox closed so tightly that whenever one of them seeps out, bystanders are struck silent”. On Thursday, he left everyone in Washington speechless when he told CNN that he directed Senator John Cornyn of Texas to begin working with Democrats, including Senators Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to find a “bipartisan solution”.

What Mr McConnell doesn’t say is always just as important as what he does. Sure enough, he didn’t list any specific policy that he would find acceptable – or any one that would cause him to tell Mr Cornyn to cut bait. That gives Mr McConnell extraordinary breathing room, allowing him to label any policy that Democrats propose as a radical violation of the Second Amendment and frame any compromise that might emerge as a commonsense bipartisan consensus – thus boxing out his most extreme members and daring more progressive Democrats to oppose whatever is brought to a vote, if anything.

For Democrats, Mr McConnell’s words offer a glimmer of hope. Ahead of Donald Trump’s second impeachment for inciting the 6 January Capitol attack, the minority leader never fully came out in favor of conviction even though he was not shy about his fury at Mr Trump; as New York Times’s Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin wrote in their book This Will Not Pass, the Kentucky Republican had hoped for an overwhelming bipartisan consensus to impeach Mr Trump for his actions, but soon realized not enough Republicans were willing to cross the president.

This time, Mr McConnell is coming out front, and likely knows there is a chance that 10 Republicans will get to yes.

Your dispatcher decided to do some-back-of-the-napkin arithmetic to figure out who those 10 might be. Bearing in mind that some of them belong to more than one tendency while others would say yes to one idea but no to another, here they are broken down into a few discrete groups.

The Retirees: Five Republican senators are planning to retire at the end of this Congress, which means they won’t face the wrath of angry primary voters and have more of an incentive to vote on something they like. Of those five, three of them could potentially get to “yes”.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, on whom the NRA has spent $3m over the course of his career, has in the past supported “red flag” laws that prevent people who would pose a risk to themselves or others from obtaining a firearm. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was the Republican co-sponsor of legislation to expand background checks with Senator Joe Manchin in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Massacre. Meanwhile, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is a member of the Republican leadership and incredibly close with Mr McConnell. Like Mr Portman, he voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The Red-Flaggers: Multiple Republicans have come out in support of red flag laws alongside Mr Portman. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post wrote that this is the most promising legislative path after the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. Other supportive Republicans include Senator Rick Scott, a member of the NRA, who says he supports red flag laws; unlike his GOP colleagues, he has also personally signed gun control legislation into law, specifically in 2018 after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Mr Scott’s fellow Florida senator, Marco Rubio, has also supported such laws in the past, while Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has talked about a grant program to support them. Axios reported that Mr Murphy is discussing red flag laws with Maine Republican Susan Collins; Senator Mike Braun of Indiana has said he was open to the idea, as has Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. Mr Blunt also told Axios he thought it was a good idea. That comes to something like seven votes – not enough to break a filibuster, but possibly enough to create a cascading effect. That said, Senator Mitt Romney told Axios that he would prefer the states to set their own individual red flag laws.

Which leads us to our next category: The Background-Checkers.

As we reported on Thursday, Mr Romney told your dispatcher, “I’ve long felt that the federal government has responsibility for an effective background check system, and if there are ways to improve that, I could be supportive.” He also said he had spoken with Mr Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Ms Collins, meanwhile, voted for a 2013 background check bill that was filibustered by almost every other Republican with the help of a handful of Democrats. But background checks are less popular than red flag laws these days, and two of the Republicans who joined that vote – Mark Kirk and John McCain – are no longer in the Senate.

As of right now, the closest tally that any of these pieces of legislation have is in the high 50s. That’s still not 60. But if Mr Cornyn can come back with a solution that Mr McConnell approves, the two might just bring a few more of their Senators over the top.

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