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The Texas conservative has become a Biden-endorsed ‘rational Republican’ on guns

Cornyn is in a unique position to get the gun votes, not just because of the latest tragedy to hit his home country. He has previously teamed with Democrats on narrow background check legislation — the most substantial gun bill to clear Congress in the past decade. Not to mention, the former whip wields major influence in a GOP conference where he is widely seen as a potential successor to McConnell.

A successful gun vote could boost Cornyn in any future GOP Senate leadership race. Still, the risks of failure are even clearer — and any bipartisan deal that doesn’t go too far for Cornyn may not be enough for Democratic negotiators. Cornyn, who ensured a radio host from the home state this week that Second Amendment restrictions “won’t happen,” voted against expanding background checks in 2013.

Even if Democrats and Cornyn can meet in the middle to try to stop America’s scourge of mass shootings, then he’ll have to sell the plan to a GOP conference historically disinterested in gun policy reforms. Despite this skepticism, especially given the proximity of the midterm elections, senators on both sides of the aisle see Cornyn as a linchpin in gun discussions.

“He’s critical,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a frequent bargaining partner of Cornyn. “His credibility as a conservative, as Republican caucus leader, as Texas law enforcement chief…gives him the credibility to negotiate a balance between strong investment in mental health and some progress in firearms safety.

Cornyn and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another prominent participant in the ongoing talks, tried to reach an agreement last year to expand the definition of a commercial arms dealer to no avail. The Texan suggested this timing might be different, given “the urgency of these repeated incidents” and law enforcement concerns about copycat shootings.

But as “somewhat optimistic” as he is, Cornyn is aware of the long odds and doesn’t sound like a centrist.

“When Senator McConnell asked me to be kind of the go-to person on this, I was like, ‘well, that’s like Joe Biden naming Kamala Harris’ Border Czar,’ I accepted the responsibility with a bit of trepidation,” he recalls.

Alongside Cornyn and Murphy in a series of discussions are the senses. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). These are happening alongside bipartisan talks on a gun package that includes Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn. ), Martin Heinrich (DN.M.), Murphy and Sinema.

Negotiators aim to hammer out proposals soon and senators involved in the talks have suggested their ideas could eventually coalesce. On both fronts, however, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave negotiators a relatively short time to reach a deal.

Cornyn brings a modest winning record to the talks. Him and Murphy worked together on narrow legislation improve agency and state reporting to the national federal instant criminal background check system. That bill, a response to a 2017 Texas church shooting and a plan for Cornyn for the current gun talks, was passed the following year as part of a larger government funding package. wide.

And earlier this year, Cornyn and Coons passed legislation in the Violence Against Women Act that requires federal authorities to notify state and local law enforcement within 24 hours if a person banned from buying a firearm attempts to do so and fails a background check.

“He’s sincerely at the table,” Murphy said in an interview. “He’s made it clear that he’s not ready to go. But so far, things on the table are incremental but significant changes.

Among the proposals under consideration in gun safety talks this summer are changing the background check system, providing additional investment in mental health and school safety, and l grants to states to establish so-called red flag laws.

Cornyn declined to say what his “red lines” would be, but in the interview he expressed concern about the mental health and isolation of young people during the pandemic.

“I’m not talking about restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens under the Second Amendment,” Cornyn said. “I’m talking about identifying people with criminal and mental health issues who pose a threat to themselves and others.”

Any package that comes together will be narrow and fail to satisfy longstanding calls from gun violence advocates for the Senate to pass House-passed legislation establishing universal background checks. But Democrats like Murphy say that at this point Congress needs to break the deadlock.

Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.), who has worked with Cornyn on criminal justice reform, said he “hopes” a deal will come to fruition, but predicted any deal will not be “at level of what we are going to do”. need to end the daily carnage.

Cornyn’s lead role in the gun talks comes amid speculation of a future run between him, current Minority Whip John Thune (RS.D.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) for ultimately succeeding McConnell as GOP leader in the Senate, whenever the Kentuckian resigns. Reaching a deal with Democrats on an issue as elusive as guns could boost Cornyn’s national profile and standing in the conference.

But it could also lead to pushback from fellow conservatives who don’t want to see gun legislation pass through the Senate.

When asked if becoming the leader of the GOP was a factor in his thinking, Cornyn replied, “It’s a long way off, and who knows if it will ever happen.” But he added that “if you’re not in the Senate making a difference and making tough, politically difficult decisions that you know are the right thing to do, then you need to find another job.”

Cornyn said he aims to see an equal number of Republicans and Democrats backing any gun deal he reaches and would like the amount of support to be in the range of 70+ co-sponsors. who backed his 2018 legislation with Murphy. But getting 20 Republicans, let alone 10, won’t be easy.

And time is not on his side.

“Ten is a pretty tough number to hit, and there’s a window for senators who have engaged in this kind of work before doing so,” Coons said of fellow Republicans. “But we need them to move on and do it fairly quickly.”

Last Wednesday, a gunman killed four people in Tulsa, Okla., prompting President Joe Biden to address the nation to urge Congress to act again. The president, in fact, also views Cornyn as critical; the senator’s staff is in contact with the White House on guns and Biden recently described the Texan as a “rational Republican.”

“People are going to say what they’re going to say,” Cornyn said. “But I’m happy to be part of the rational coalition.”

Sarah Ferris and Jordan Carney contributed to this report.

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