WASHINGTON — In a pink-tinted hideout in the basement of the Capitol, Connecticut Democrat Senator Christopher S. Murphy did something unusual last month to kick off a high-stakes legislative negotiation: Instead of a wish list, he came up with a blacklist .
Two days earlier, an 18-year-old man had walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and shot 19 elementary students and two teachers. -long cycle of doing nothing on gun security and finally doing something.
Now, sitting with his fellow Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and two conservative Republicans, Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to try and compromise, he didn’t even bother to push for sweeping gun control measures. to mention he and his party had long demanded.
There was no question of banning guns or ammunition or enacting a nationwide red flag law to allow weapons to be taken from people deemed too dangerous to own—all proposals that Republicans vehemently opposed.
“I have a pretty clear idea of what 60 votes can get,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview, referring to the threshold of getting a bill past a Senate filibuster — and those proposals couldn’t.
Less than a month after that conspiracy in Ms. Sinema’s Capitol retreat, Congress on Friday gave final approval to legislation aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people, breaking a seemingly intractable political stalemate and the first substantial step in nearly three decades to tighten gun laws.
The measure, which is being sent to President Biden’s office, is the culmination of weeks of intense private talks fueled by tragedy, fraught with political risk and punctuated by near collapses.
The National Rifle Association was heavily involved in drafting the bill, although the gun rights group ultimately opposed it, as did Everytown, the country’s leading gun security group. Their unlikely combination reflected the unlikely two-party coalition of senators who forged the compromise, starting not with high hopes for a historic deal, but checking their respective priorities at the door.
“We really started with the idea that we wouldn’t negotiate,” said Mr. Tillis in an interview.
This account of how the bill came about was provided by more than a dozen lawmakers, aides and officials involved in the negotiations, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
The mood in the country and in Congress had turned after Uvalde and a racist massacre in Buffalo days earlier that killed 10 black people, creating a brief period in which both sides felt the need to take action to respond.
“There are a number of ways of doing things here: one is if you want results; the other is if you just want to make a political statement,” Cornyn said this week. He added: “I think the Democrats wanted a result and we wanted a result, so this is what we came up with.”
The first challenge from Mr. Murphy was persuaded to skip the political statement.
New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer came under pressure from progressives to force a vote on strengthening background checks, a widely supported move that most Republicans nevertheless opposed and did not have the votes for. that were needed to succeed.
In a telephone conversation with Mr. Schumer advised Mr. Murphy put in a “show vote” but was pessimistic about the chances of a two-pronged deal. There was a “5 percent chance,” Mr. Murphy told Mr. Schumer, but it was worth a try.
He reached out to Republicans he thought would be admissible, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania — the only two remaining Republicans to back a failed background check bill in 2013 — and Mr. Cornyn , an old friend he had worked with in 2018 to make modest improvements to the federal background check system.
Then Mr. Murphy texted Ms. Sinema after quoting her and saying she wanted to talk to Democrats and Republicans to see if there was anything Congress could do to protect frightened children across the country.
“Are you serious?” he typed on his phone. Mrs. Sinema replied that she was.
Republicans also realized they had to act. Kentucky Republican Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell announced that he would send Mr. Cornyn, a loyal ally, to monitor the talks, giving him both visibility into the negotiations and a measure of control over their direction.
The Republicans got the NRA involved, knowing that while the group was unlikely to support a compromise, its vocal opposition could quickly kill any hope of a deal.
When Mrs. Sinema, whose first job was at a domestic violence shelter, brought up the idea of tightening a federal ban on the purchase of domestic violence weapons to involve both intimate partners and spouses, the NRA backed down and pushed insist that boyfriends eventually increase their ability to buy firearms.
When Democrats agreed that the ban should be lifted after five years for first-time offenders but otherwise with a clean track record, the NRA tried to extend that to other domestic abusers, a move that current law would have relaxed. Democrats, advised by Rob Wilcox, Everytown’s federal legal director, declined.
“We weren’t going to sign that, and at that point everyone was getting wise to what they were trying to do,” said John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president.
Mr. Murphy and Ms. Sinema simultaneously met with a wider group of senators in both parties, bringing together eight other centrists and veterans of previous failed attempts at arms security deals. None of the Republicans were up for re-election, giving the group more political leeway to act without fear of retaliation from voters in November’s midterm elections.
By June 12, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats publicly announced their outline for a deal that would improve background checks for younger gun buyers, encourage states to enact federal “red flag” laws to temporarily confiscate guns from dangerous people, the so-called “boyfriend loophole” for domestic violence and pour federal money into mental health and school security. The size and makeup of the group suggested the measure could garner the 60 votes needed to advance in the equal divided Senate.
But turning a sketch into legal text was a chore, and the compromise nearly fell apart in the process.
Senators grappled with a range of sticking points, sometimes over Thai food or wine Mrs. Sinema brought from a Texas-born winemaker.
They debated who should count as an intimate partner in the domestic violence provision. Republicans were concerned that the legislation could be used to address decades-old past relationships and pushed for guarantees that those banned from buying guns under the provision would receive a fair trial.
When time ran out for a deal late last week, a visibly frustrated Mr. Cornyn abruptly left a negotiating session on Capitol Hill to catch a late afternoon flight to Texas and seemed ready to throw in the towel.
“I’m done,” he declared as he left the meeting. “Now they know where I stand, and so far there is no agreement.”
Mr. Schumer, who estimated that he had spoken to Mr. Murphy “200 times in 10 days” during the talks, gave his dejected colleague a pep talk.
“I said, ‘I know things look bleak. You just have to keep trying,'” Mr Schumer said in an interview.
Back home in Texas, Mr. Cornyn came face to face with the political risks of signing a gun security deal with Democrats. At the Republican convention in Houston, he was booed and berated loudly, with some in the audience chanting “no red flag.”
“The time I was honestly most nervous was when I read the coverage of Senator Cornyn at his state convention,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the negotiating group.
But Mr Cornyn stayed at the table. He had a good reason for that.
A week earlier, he and Mr. McConnell conducted a poll of 1,000 gun-owning households across the country and found that most supported key elements of the new bill. A firm majority supported increasing federal funding for states to enforce or enforce red flag laws, and more than 80 percent supported closing the boyfriend loophole and giving law enforcement more time to investigate juvenile and mental health records. .
McConnell would later tell reporters that Republicans saw a clear political incentive to support the bill, which he did along with 14 other members of his party.
On Tuesday evening, when the bill had cleared the first hurdle to the passage, Ms Sinema and Mr Cornyn slammed their fists on the floor.
“Thank you for not listening to the naysayers and the critics, and those who would spew disinformation and outright lies about what we’re doing here,” Mr Cornyn said after the Senate passed the bill Thursday night, as gun violence survivors listened out. the gallery above.
On Thursday evening, while waiting for the final vote to close, Ms Sinema turned to Mr Cornyn with a challenge.
“Now what, John?” she said.