Mitch McConnell is breaking character yet again, and this time it’s on one of the most polarizing issues in American politics.
Once known as the Senate’s “guardian of gridlock,” the GOP leader is publicly endorsing the chamber’s bipartisan framework on gun safety, wading into a topic so volatile with his base that it ended one Republican lawmaker’s career this month. While McConnell’s position didn’t surprise his GOP colleagues, it continues a pattern of cutting against his reputation and easing up, ever so slightly, in his push to stop the Democratic agenda.
McConnell cautioned Tuesday that he’d support gun safety legislation if it reflects the bipartisan framework. Yet his support for such a package would probably put him in the minority of his conference, continuing a trend on some of the 50-50 Senate’s most high-profile topics.
“His issue has been: ‘We’ve got to be engaged in conversations. Typically we’re not. This time we are,’” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is undecided on the guns deal and may oppose it. “In this conversation, it seems to be more circling around that: ‘What do we both agree on? OK, let’s move on that.’ That doesn’t offend me. In fact, I think that’s helpful long-term.”
McConnell voted with less than half of his conference members on other bipartisan bills, like China competitiveness legislation and last year’s Biden White House-backed infrastructure package. His Republican allies say he’s got an eye on long-term goals — trying to help preserve the legislative filibuster, giving his own party some cross-aisle accomplishments and ensuring its message stays focused on the upcoming midterm elections.
But of all the topics where McConnell has given ground, guns is by far the most divisive. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) views McConnell’s backing of the framework as an endorsement “with a reservation.”
“He says [if] it stays within the framework. Well, that’s interesting,” Shelby said. “But that doesn’t bind anybody else. Everybody’s got to vote, and I’d be very skeptical of the whole thing. Because this could be the first big step, one of the big steps, on taking away gun rights.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the party’s lead negotiator on guns and a former whip, said Wednesday he’s aiming for “70-plus” senators to vote for any final package. But conservatives in the GOP conference are already questioning parts of the framework as well as the Senate’s quick preferred timeline to pass a bill.
Meanwhile, proponents of the gun safety deal fear the longer negotiations drag out, the more likely infighting becomes. And many members of McConnell’s leadership team, including his top two deputies Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), aren’t yet backing the outline and say they need to see the text.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team who raised concerns about the package at a private meeting on Tuesday, took a libertarian view of McConnell’s role: “He can do what he wants. I mean, everybody can do what they want. I don’t pick at my colleagues.”
McConnell’s also leading a conference where many deal-cutting members are retiring, allowing them to ignore the political consequences of certain votes. Of the 10 Republican senators who endorsed the bipartisan framework Sunday, four will be gone at the end of this Congress. No GOP senators up for reelection this year have endorsed the framework yet.
Senators on both sides of the aisle anticipate the chamber would move quickly on the gun legislation once text is finalized. Some Republicans believe acting swiftly could also be advantageous by preventing the topic from dominating the midterms.
Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t quite sure what to make of McConnell’s decision to engage in the gun talks. After all, the Republican conference has historically been resistant to gun reforms and McConnell voted against the 2013 legislation from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), his party’s lead negotiator, described the GOP’s leader’s go-ahead on the gun talks as “very intentional.”
“It was a pleasant surprise,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “There’s a political explanation and a human explanation. I don’t know which one is true. Maybe both.”
Still, no one is suggesting McConnell’s going soft or tacking to the center. He led Republicans in blocking Democrats’ election reform legislation, voted against the creation of a 9/11-style Jan. 6 commission despite support from a handful of his members and engaged in a months-long showdown with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over the debt limit last year.
The coming days will determine how deeply the GOP conference splits on a guns package, if one actually comes to fruition. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said McConnell currently reflects “where a lot of people are: ‘It sounds good, look at the details.’”
Graham added that getting a majority of Republicans to support the eventual guns bill is “in the realm of possibility,” even if it’s an uphill battle.
Senate negotiators met Wednesday afternoon to iron out legislative text for the agreement. Before they did so, Cornyn expressed concern about language for two of the framework’s key provisions: grants for states to implement so-called red flag laws, which allow for the temporary confiscation of weapons from a person deemed a threat to himself or others, and broadening firearms restrictions on people who have abused their romantic partners.
That latter provision, known as the “boyfriend loophole,” has long been a sticking point for the GOP. In addition, several members of the Republicans conference have due process concerns related to red flag laws.
And while McConnell supports the negotiations, they’re not exactly a central focus of his daily floor speeches. One day after endorsing the framework, he spoke Wednesday about security for federal judges and hit Democrats again for rising inflation.
“Three of the most basic duties that any government owes its citizens are stable prices, public safety and secure borders,” McConnell said. “Unfortunately for our country, the Democrats have struck out swinging.”