Senate lawmakers finalized on Tuesday an ambitious rewrite of the nation’s firearm and school safety laws, but odds remain long that Congress can pass the measure before adjourning for a two-week recess.
A group of bipartisan senators, led by Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, released the 80-page bill after last-minute changes delayed their initial pledge to make it public earlier this week.
The bill would boost funding for school security and mental health treatment, while tightening the background check system for gun purchases. It also would create a new block grant program to subsidize states that adopt red flag laws, which allow courts to confiscate firearms from individuals deemed a threat, or set up other crisis-intervention programs.
“This week we’ll pass legislation that will become the most significant piece of anti-gun violence legislation Congress will have passed in 30 years,” Mr. Murphy said. “This is a breakthrough and more importantly — it’s a bipartisan breakthrough.”
In a show of bipartisan support, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw his weight behind the measure shortly after it was unveiled.
“For years, the far-left falsely claimed that Congress could only address the terrible issue of mass murder by trampling on law-abiding Americans’ constitutional rights,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “This bill proves that false.”
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Outside of Mr. Cornyn and Murphy, the bill was authored by two other senators: Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The group initially released a two-page framework agreement earlier this month, which they used as the basis for the bill.
Even though the agreement had drawn the support of more than 20 senators from both parties, translating it into legislation proved vexing. The authors, in particular, struggled with how to design the bill’s red flag incentives and its tightening of background checks.
Although lawmakers agreed early on to make juvenile records subject to gun background checks, they struggled with how to address the issue of domestic violence. Federal law already prohibits people from owning or buying guns if they have been convicted of domestic violence against a spouse or someone they live with and with whom they have a child.
The prohibition does not apply to people convicted of domestic violence against people in other romantic relationships, such as dating but not living together. Republican lawmakers were initially concerned over how to define non-marital relationships, especially since such cases involving domestic violence are prosecuted at the state level.
The bipartisan group opted to not create a federal definition for the crime, allowing the background check system to rely on state records. Lawmakers also included a five-year restitution period for domestic violence abusers, provided their criminal records remain clean.
“One new feature that we proposed is that those who are convicted of non-spousal misdemeanor domestic abuse, not [a] felony but a misdemeanor, will have an opportunity after five years to have their Second Amendment rights restored,” Mr. Cornyn said.
SEE ALSO: Cornyn booed at Texas GOP convention for negotiating with Democrats on guns
Lawmakers were also divided over whether federal subsidies should be provided equally for states with red flag laws and those that use other programs with a similar purpose. Republicans argued that since some states would never pass a red flag law, the proposal should make money eligible for alternative programs such as crisis intervention.
The matter was settled when Democrats agreed to split the money equally among all 50 states. Republicans got an added concession by requiring that any red flag laws or other programs have due process protections to be eligible for taxpayer funding.
“One of the things that we’ve agreed upon is [that] they have to have robust due process protections because we’re talking about constitutional rights,” Mr. Cornyn said. “So if the new law does not include due process protections, it will not be eligible for these grants, no matter what form that crisis intervention program takes.”
Mr. Cornyn and other negotiators hoped to have the legislation ready to made public on Monday. That timeline was scuttled at the last minute after some supporters raised concerns that mental health treatments funded by the bill should not include abortion.
The issue was resolved in favor of Republicans, but it remains uncertain if the bill can pass before lawmakers depart Washington for a two-week recess starting Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has pledged to begin debate on the bill immediately using a special legislative process. The New York Democrat has already scheduled an initial vote to advance the bill Tuesday night.
Republican opponents of the bill are expected to use an arsenal of legislative procedures to slow down consideration of the bill. Many have already begun sounding the alarm on what they see as a push to force the measure through without giving lawmakers appropriate time to review it.
“We are being asked to vote tonight to begin debate on a gun proposal whose legislative text was only made available less than an hour ago,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.
In the Senate, unanimous consent is needed to expedite consideration of a bill, meaning that all 100 senators must agree on moving forward. Generally, Senate leaders negotiate the number of amendments and time allotted for debate before unanimous consent is offered.
If even one lawmaker objects, the process is sidelined and normal order must be followed. Since an objection is all but assured, the earliest that the Senate could pass the bill likely would be sometime over the weekend.
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