WASHINGTON — As Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, debated whether she should vote to pass a bipartisan gun reform measure, her office phone lines were flooded with voters hoping to influence her.
The calls were coming in roughly six to one, she estimated, with an urgent message: “Please do something.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Ernst became one of 14 Republicans to break with her party in support of advancing the legislation, propelling her past a Republican blockade that has thwarted years of efforts to revise state laws on firearms. The vote was an indication of how lawmakers from both political parties were galvanized into action by the horror of back-to-back mass shootings, including a racist massacre that killed 10 black people in Buffalo and a rampage at a school. elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two teachers.
“I’ve even spoken to Republican lawmakers in the state of Iowa, and they’re like, ‘We’re also hearing from our constituents about this issue,'” said Ms. Ernst, Republican No. 5, adding, “So I think people recognize that something has to be done.”
But the defector list also illustrated the fragility of the coalition that is willing to move forward with even a modest compromise on guns and the political peril that a majority of Republicans still see in backing any new law on the matter. He suggests that, far from a sea change that could usher in a new era of consensus on combating gun violence in America, the bill represents a high point for a Congress that could soon be in the hands of one party. Republican who is still fiercely opposed to doing so.
Only two of the 14 Senate Republicans who broke ranks to support him face re-election this year and, for different reasons, neither is particularly worried about losing support from his party’s conservative base.
Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict President Donald J. Trump during his 2021 impeachment trial and is running for re-election as a moderate, has repeatedly been lauded by voters for her independent sequence. Indiana Sen. Todd Young rode through an uncontested primary in his conservative state.
Three of the defectors – Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina – are expected to leave Congress at the end of the year. The others, including Ms Ernst, who won a second term in 2020, will not face voters for years.
That includes Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Minority Leader, whose willingness to let the bill advance was a sign that some Republicans calculated that, given the extent of public outrage over the shootings of mass, their party could not afford to be seen as blocking a modest compromise on gun safety in an election year.
“If what we’re doing is making things safer, without taking away people’s Second Amendment rights, I think we may have done the right thing,” Ms. Murkowski said.
The bill still needs to pass the Senate, where Democratic leaders hope to pass it by the end of the week, and pass the House before it can make it to President Biden’s desk.
The legislation, which was brokered by a small group of Democrats and Republicans, would expand background checks to give authorities more time to review the mental and juvenile health records of potential buyers under 21, and for the first time include serious dating partners. in a law that prevents domestic abusers from buying guns. It would provide federal money to states to establish “red flag” laws, which allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms from people deemed dangerous, and other response programs and provide millions of dollars to support resources mental health and strengthen school safety.
“Opinions are mixed back home, but overall the reaction has been positive because people realize we’re not harming law-abiding gun owners,” said Senator Susan Collins of the Maine, one of the Republicans involved in the talks.
The 64-34 vote to pass it signaled that the measure had more than enough support to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to break a Republican filibuster, a barrier that has repeatedly stalled more ambitious efforts to fight back. against armed violence. But less than a third of the Republican conference, including members of Mr. McConnell’s leadership team, were willing to back him on Tuesday. (Senator Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania retiring this year, was absent but said in a statement that he supported the measure.)
To win over Republicans, top negotiators, along with Mr McConnell, worked to underscore the bill’s investment in addressing mental health issues and their success in keeping its scope much narrower than Democrats wanted. . Democratic negotiators dropped more ambitious proposals, including a ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons to buyers under 21 and other gun restrictions, which were passed by the House-controlled House. Democrats but stood no chance in an evenly divided Senate.
“Read the bill and let’s talk about your concerns,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a key Republican negotiator. “When you position it that way and people fully understand what we do and more importantly what we don’t do, it’s not a difficult discussion for me to have in North Carolina.”
But the majority of Republicans in Congress are still expected to oppose the compromise as going too far. On Wednesday, House Republican leaders formally urged rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose the measure, arguing that it “takes the wrong approach in trying to tackle violent crime” in a notice circulated to offices.
As in the Senate, the few House Republicans who have said they would support the measure are heading for the exits. Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who announced he was retiring, said Wednesday the measure “sends a clear message that Congress can work together to keep Americans safe.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a top Republican negotiator, was booed at his state’s party convention last weekend, with Republicans in Texas going so far as to berate the senior lawmaker and eight of the Republicans who had signed a first bipartite plan. Adding to the reaction from the party’s right flank, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, marked the 14 Republicans “traitors to the Constitution and to our country”.
But many of those Republicans defended the measure on Wednesday as a valid compromise.
“When people say, ‘Can’t you do something?’ the answer is yes,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and one of the Republicans who has worked on gun legislation in the past. He added: “There are always concerns. I can’t please everyone.
The senators and their aides said the talks were aided by leaders of both parties, who gave grassroots lawmakers time to come to an agreement and a willingness to set aside policy positions that could alienate one. or the other of the parties.
“I think the American people want us to do something – to respond rather than wringing our hands and blaming the school system or the parents or the gun,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of Virginia- Occidentale, one of the Republican supporters.
Ms Capito did not agree with the main lines of the compromise agreed this month. But when she returned home to West Virginia last week, she said, the message she heard from her constituents was different: “Do something.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” she concluded. “That’s why I did it. That’s why I voted for. »
Ms. Ernst, like other senators who voted for the measure, said she and her staff had their work cut out to educate voters who had misconceptions about the legislation’s impact on landlords. of firearms.
“If they knew and understood the bill, I think they would be more supportive, rather than jumping on the latest myth or bandwagon there is,” she said.
There is no guarantee that all Republicans who voted to go ahead with the bill will support it in the end.
Mr. Young suggested he was still reviewing the specifics of the legislation, including requesting specifics to determine if there were any valid concerns about the violation of Second Amendment rights.
“We haven’t had a lot of time to review the text and solicit thoughts from various stakeholders and experts on this,” Young said Wednesday. “I remain open to supporting him. I also remain open to not supporting it.
Stephanie Lai and Catherine Edmondson contributed report.