Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema quickly ruled out weakening the filibuster to pass gun safety legislation. Now it’s up to their Republican colleagues to prove to the centrist pair that there’s any middle ground.
The West Virginia and Arizona Democrats’ dismissal of a partisan approach, along with Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) lobbying against a failed vote on Democrats-only legislation, has forced Republicans to the table on guns. Whether it’s enough for the GOP to agree to even the most modest response to the murder of 19 children and two teachers in Texas is another question altogether.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said that Sinema and Manchin’s enduring opposition to gutting the 60-vote threshold “pushes the bipartisan discussions, I think, harder.”
“They’re actually saving the Senate from itself,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who wants to review Manchin’s background checks expansion legislation. “I’ve told him, ‘Look, Joe, I’m more than willing to visit with you on these issues if we could do something that could actually work and stand the test of time.’”
Bipartisan bids to legislate on guns failed repeatedly in the past decade, mostly due to GOP opposition to stricter gun laws. But Republicans acknowledge that because Manchin and Sinema preserved the filibuster, they need to at least listen to Democrats who are desperate for an agreement to reduce gun violence.
Manchin and Sinema insisted on working with Republicans to pursue last year’s infrastructure law, which resulted in a rare big bipartisan triumph. But since then, progressives have criticized Manchin and Sinema for their opposition to changing Senate rules to pass election reform, and Manchin’s own efforts to attract Republicans to back voting legislation came up empty.
And firearms are even more of a third rail issue in the Republican Party. Just two GOP senators remain in office who supported the Manchin-Toomey background checks expansion in 2013: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, both of whom are part of the new bipartisan group. Still, more potential supporters could be emerging.
“I salute them for having the presence of mind to retain the institution of the Senate,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) of Manchin and Sinema. “Manchin-Toomey has a lot of appealing features and red flags make a lot of sense. I have to look at the final bill, but the answer is I am inclined to vote for that kind of legislation.”
Sinema and Manchin participated in a bipartisan meeting on guns Thursday, along with Murphy, Collins and Toomey, as well as Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.),and Bill Cassidy (R-La.). Separately, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) met Murphy to “touch gloves.”
Among the ideas on the table are a narrow expansion of background checks, as well as legislation that would offer grants to states that pursue so-called “red flag” laws, under which law enforcement officials can petition a court to confiscate weapons from individuals considered threats to themselves and others. The red flag proposal is more popular among Republicans than background check expansion.
Still, Manchin said that the energy in the Senate feels different than a decade ago, when he first devoted himself to extending background checks to gun shows and internet transactions after a shooter killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
“I’ve never been more encouraged by more activity from my Republican colleagues and Democrat colleagues,” Manchin said. “I can remember after Sandy Hook, I didn’t have anybody coming to the table.”
Since the start of the 50-50 Senate, Republicans have gone out of their way to praise the two moderate Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even told his conference to do so during a private meeting last year. And the Republican praise for Manchin only grew louder after he squashed President Joe Biden’s sweeping “Build Back Better” bill in December.
Republicans helped Democrats raise the debt ceiling last year out of fear that a default might change Sinema and Manchin’s minds about the filibuster. Even so, it’s not at all clear that the same dynamic could push Republicans to come to an agreement with Democrats on firearm access, an issue that animates the GOP base like few others despite public support for new restrictions of some kind.
Some of the duo’s fellow Democrats are also skeptical that their position on the filibuster will increase the likelihood that Republicans agree to a deal on guns.
“Any expectation that they’ve done things that Republicans like, and so Republicans owe them a debt — that is naive,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
In fact, Democrats fear Republicans are running a similar playbook to the one they’ve used after other mass shootings: Open the door to talks while the issue is in the national spotlight, but decline to seal the deal later on. McConnell is encouraging Cornyn to engage with Murphy, a sign that the GOP leader isn’t trying to stamp out any bipartisan energy so soon after this month’s horrific mass killings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who talks to Sinema on a near-daily basis, was accordingly noncommittal.
“We have to at least listen to each other to see if there’s a path forward where, you know, we might be able to find solutions that actually address the problem,” Thune said. “There’s a lot of conversations going on right now, and we’ll see where it goes.”
On Thursday afternoon the Senate split, not to return until June 6. Even though conversations will continue over the recess among the senators in both parties working on the issue, there’s now no chance of action while the mass killing of children is fresh in the minds of lawmakers and the public.