Senate negotiators meet again in gun talks after Uvalde, Texas, shooting

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican negotiators will huddle virtually for a second day Wednesday as they try to hammer out legislation in response to last week’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 children and two teachers.

The bipartisan group of nine senators who met in person in the Capitol last week after the May 24 massacre is planning a Zoom meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss how much progress they’ve made during the Memorial Day recess. 

Those nine senators are: Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico; and GOP Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

During the Memorial Day weekend, members of the group broke off into smaller working groups to tackle various pieces of the gun package.

One working group is looking at funding for mental health services and boosting school security — measures that generally have been favored by Republicans after high-profile mass shootings. 

Another small group is focusing its efforts on expanding background checks, while a third is looking at incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws, which allow authorities to confiscate firearms from individuals deemed to be a threat to themselves or to others.

“There is a framework for a bill,” said a source close to the talks.

Senate negotiators are not leaving anything out that they think could get done, the source added. The group is being “reasonable and focusing on what can both pass and save lives.”

Wednesday’s meeting follows a smaller virtual gathering a day earlier that included Murphy and Sinema, as well as two other Republicans, Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn called Tuesday’s meeting a “very constructive conversation about the best response to the horrific events in Uvalde last week.” 

Inside the 50-member GOP conference, the well-liked Texas Republican is seen as the liaison to party leadership, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Regardless of what the larger group comes up with, Cornyn’s sign-off will likely be necessary to win over McConnell’s support for any deal, said one GOP aide with knowledge of the dynamics. 

And if past is precedent, McConnell’s stamp of approval will probably be needed to secure enough Republican support to defeat a filibuster — the 60-vote threshold to move most legislation through the Senate — and make a law.

Cornyn also has a history of working directly with Murphy. The two of them helped craft the Fix NICS Act, which was designed to improve reporting into the background check system and was signed into law by former President Donald Trump.

The bipartisan negotiators have been briefing their respective leaders — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and McConnell — who have both encouraged the talks.

“We have a Second Amendment to the Constitution. We take it seriously. There is a right to keep and bear arms in this country. And so what I’ve done is encourage some bipartisan discussions that are going on,” McConnell said Wednesday at an event in Kentucky.

He added that he had just spoken by phone with one of the group’s members “to see if we can find a way forward consistent with the Second Amendment that targets the problem” and said, “there are two broad categories that underscore the problem: mental illness and school safety.”

President Joe Biden has not gotten involved in the bipartisan talks yet, but he’s called for a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines — something that negotiators say is not on the table because it would run into a GOP filibuster.

“It’s hard to find the path to 60 votes in the Senate for a ban on assault weapons,” Murphy said this week.

Despite the modest policies being discussed in the Senate, John Feinblatt, the president of the pro-reform group Everytown for Gun Safety, said he’s encouraged by the discussions.

“From everything we’re hearing, Senators on both sides of the aisle are negotiating in good faith, which is a very positive sign,” Feinblatt said in a statement to NBC News. “Now they need to move quickly and remember that the American people just want to go to the grocery store, send their kids to school, go to church, and walk the streets of their city without getting shot down. If the Senate can’t meet that basic need, this country is in deep trouble.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is not part of the talks and said he is unlikely to support a possible deal if it includes background checks and red flag law provisions. But he said he does think the group could strike a deal on a gun-reform package.

“They may if Democrats don’t over-demand,” Cramer told NBC News on Wednesday. “If they simply want left wing talking points, no. If they actually want to accomplish something to make students safer, yes.”

Julie Tsirkin and Frank Thorp V contributed.