The Senate’s Gun Deal Is a ‘Cold Shower’ for House Dems

·8 min read
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

While a bipartisan group of senators worked to hammer out a deal on gun reform legislation, President Joe Biden issued a statement saying their compromise could represent “the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.”

In the House, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) had a distinctly different way of describing what he is seeing take shape in the Senate.

“It’s a cold shower for us,” he told The Daily Beast, “to see what emerges as a so-called compromise in the Senate.”

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Given the GOP’s militant opposition to changing gun laws in recent years, whatever the Senate’s working group comes up with—if they reach a deal at all—will be, as Biden described, the most significant gun reform bill to become law in recent history.

Democrats know any compromise deal is going to fall far short of the sweeping reforms they want to enact. Such are the realities of governing with the barest possible majority in the Senate, where 60 votes are still required to pass most bills.

It may be bracing for Democrats like Raskin to see a deal emerge that will be significantly narrower than the comprehensive package they passed last week—with five Republican votes—that included long-awaited gun reforms.

But for many House Democrats, the biggest problem is not that the Senate plan will not do enough; it’s the fear that a compromise deal could carry unintended consequences that threaten to tarnish a long-awaited bit of progress in fighting gun violence.

The top concern of these members—largely in the progressive wing, but also among those closer to the center—is the likelihood that the legislation will include new policy and funding for what is described in the group’s just-issued framework as “safety measures in and around primary schools.”

Many Republicans have responded to the devastating elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, by pushing to “harden” schools, arguing for deploying armed guards, arming teachers, and reconfiguring campuses to stop shooters.

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The GOP’s attempt to distract from any discussion about reforming gun laws with proposals about school safety is frustrating Democrats who are watching those ideas lock into the bipartisan Senate deal.

On Thursday, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) fumed to The Daily Beast that the consideration of school safety measures “grants credence to the deranged GOP focus on school fortresses.”

Senate negotiators have not yet agreed on text for a draft bill, so it’s unclear what school “safety measures” they will propose. But when some Democrats read that phrase, their minds go to one place: more policing in schools.

A massive federal investment in “school resource officers”—law enforcement patrolling schools—was one of the major responses to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Extensive research about the expansion of SROs has found that, in some areas, the program has largely just brought more low-income and minority youth into the criminal justice system.

That’s what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) brought up when asked about the Senate legislation.

“Once we start opening up conversations that start creeping into criminal justice policy, or, you know, also intersect between both juveniles and people with mental health issues… that’s when we start opening cans of worms where there could be a lot of unintended consequences for vulnerable communities,” she said.

“It’s not an issue of all or nothing,” Ocasio-Cortez said of her reservations about the compromise. “It's an issue of do no harm.”

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If and when the legislation is finished, how much it satisfies such Democrats’ wishes to “do no harm” likely will determine how many votes it gets in the House. The majority of House Democrats would, in all likelihood, gladly vote for some version of what the Senate is discussing, even if the school safety language alienates some.

But the current angst over the contours of a Senate deal does mean that House Democrats could face a tougher-than-expected vote with virtually no wiggle room.

At the very least, a moment that Democratic leaders might want to mark as a major achievement on an urgent issue could instead be endured as a hold-your-nose moment by many members.

“If you start to see a package with language written that could be categorized as bad policy from a progressive perspective rather than incremental policy, that changes things,” a senior progressive staffer told The Daily Beast. “You get to a place where it might be a harder vote.”

After meeting with members of House Democratic leadership on Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who is spearheading the Senate talks, said his sense was that “there was a broad enthusiasm in the House for the framework.”

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Despite his serious frustration with the legislation, Auchincloss still said he was “confident that my constituents don’t want me to vote against a gun violence bill.”

Other Democrats, however, were not prepared to make a similar commitment. “We just have to wait and see, but you know, it’s a tough pill to swallow an insufficiently strong package,” Raskin said. “But it might be indigestible to take something that actually sets us back.”

If the potential compromise contains more of the gun violence prevention measures Democrats are most excited about, the proverbial pill of concessions to the GOP could be easier to swallow.

Senators in both parties, for instance, seem to be in agreement on a provision to provide funding for states to implement so-called “red flag” laws, which are used to temporarily block access to firearms by people considered a danger to themselves or others.

Another area of alignment is on language to toughen background checks for prospective buyers of firearms who are between 18 and 21 years old—an idea that has taken on added urgency given that the shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo were both 18 years old.

But with talks at a critical phase this week, some important elements of the proposal are on the chopping block.

Democrats believe they now finally have an opportunity to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which allows men convicted of assaulting their girlfriends to purchase firearms, even though married men with similar convictions would be barred from doing the same. That provision was at risk of being dropped entirely, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the lead GOP negotiator, said this week.

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On both sides of the Capitol, Democrats have watched those developments warily. “Support for this bill on the Democratic side is largely made up of people who believe that something is better than nothing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told HuffPost. “But the Republicans keep whittling down on something.”

But key Democrats in the House expressed confidence in Murphy’s ability to steer Senate talks in the best possible direction. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the sponsor of the House’s assault weapons ban legislation, believes the Senate group has already come far enough.

“Senator Murphy has done really heroic work to bring together the support of 10 Republicans,” Cicilline said. “I always want to look at the language, but… this will make meaningful progress and will help save lives.”

That’s the argument Murphy has been making to the public in a week packed with negotiations. “Of course, this isn’t everything that I want, but it’s life-saving, meaningful progress,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Ultimately, I think if we get this framework into text, which we will, the Senate and the House I hope will come to the same conclusion.”

This window for long-awaited action to counter gun violence has provided for an unusual flurry of cross-Capitol communication in hopes of influencing the final product. Several House Democrats told The Daily Beast they were passing along ideas and feedback to Senate offices engaged in negotiations.

Ocasio-Cortez and a fellow New York progressive, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, both said they were specifically trying to influence the language on school safety.

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Bowman, who was a middle school principal in The Bronx before coming to Congress last year, told The Daily Beast he is “concerned and worried about more cops in schools, because more cops in schools usually means more black and brown people in jail and in jail prematurely.”

But notably, Bowman is not as opposed as other Democrats to the idea of including some “hardening” of schools in the package, and conceded it could be “a small part of the solution.” He said his experience with repeated active shooter drills and other features of modern school safety protocol as a principal have given him a unique perspective, which he is passing along to Murphy’s office.

Ocasio-Cortez, who said she is also passing along feedback through House liaisons to the Senate, also struck an optimistic note—a sign that right now, even the biggest skeptics of the Senate’s emerging plan are far from ready to give up on the effort.

“If this text gets it wrong, that’s going to have really strong implications, but the text can also get it right,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I’m hopeful that we are in conversation early enough that we’re able to help people get it right.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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