WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s Senate vote to advance a narrow bipartisan deal to toughen federal gun laws was, on one level, a political miracle, with 14 Republicans joining Democrats to defy the National Rifle Association and vocal conservative critics — in an election year, no less.
Seen another way, however, the strong Republican opposition to a bill that offered only comparatively incremental tweaks to existing gun laws after an escalating series of mass shootings demonstrated the resilience of hard-line views on gun rights and put a spotlight on the dwindling corps inside the Senate GOP who are willing to cut even modest deals with Democrats.
The 64-34 test vote Tuesday, which put the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act on a path to passage later this week, offered a road map to how governing can still happen on sensitive issues in a divided era — very carefully, with the right players, and under the right circumstances.
No player was more crucial than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who tapped trusted leadership deputy Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the May 24 massacre at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, and made clear that time had come — unlike in the past — for Republicans to cut a deal on gun violence.
"This time is different," McConnell said Wednesday, in a speech formally backing the deal Cornyn negotiated. "This time, Democrats came our way and agreed to advance some common-sense solutions without rolling back rights for law-abiding citizens. The result is a product I'm proud to support."
McConnell, however, finds himself in the minority of a divided Republican conference — a position he usually tries to avoid.
Backing the deal in the test vote Tuesday were only 13 other Republicans, including three set to retire next year and six others who, like McConnell, aren't up for reelection until 2026. Another Republican supportive of the deal who did not vote Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is also retiring.
Among the 34 Republicans who voted no Tuesday were several members of McConnell's leadership team — including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 GOP leader, and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 — and multiple senators who have openly flirted with presidential runs.
Some of those Republicans were among the most outspoken Wednesday in publicly opposing the deal and warning of brewing conservative backlash that could wash the deal's backers out of power. One of them, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., summarized his constituents' reaction to the bill as "fury."
"People are absolutely furious that this bill does not do anything meaningful to address the national crime wave. It doesn't do anything meaningful to address the escalating attacks on police and civilians," he said. "I mean, in Missouri, we've got record numbers of homicides, carjackings, violent crime, and it's everywhere. And this bill does nothing about it."
After Cornyn made a final pitch to his colleagues at a Senate Republican lunch Wednesday — emphasizing the mental health and law enforcement funding in the bill as well as the more-robust gun control provisions that were left out — Barrasso and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proposed voting on a different bill that eliminated gun measures entirely, instead focusing solely on mental health and school security provisions.
A broader group of Senate conservatives also expressed public dismay, including Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who told reporters that his office phones were "lighting up" with callers who are "disappointed that we had 14 Republicans voting for this … that we had the base of Republicans put this over the top."
Asked about McConnell's role, he said, "There are a lot of disappointed people … everywhere."
Meanwhile, in the House, top leaders quickly distanced themselves from the Senate dealmakers — with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., telling their members just hours after Tuesday's Senate vote that they would oppose it.
A memo sent Wednesday from Scalise's office to GOP lawmakers said the bill represents "an effort to slowly chip away at law-abiding citizens' 2nd Amendment rights" and that it "contains insufficient guardrails to ensure that the money is actually going toward keeping guns out of the hands of criminals or preventing mass violence."
"I'm 100% against it — 100%," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a prominent conservative leader in the House. "This is the wrong thing to do, and I hope it doesn't happen."
Addressing reporters Wednesday, McConnell said it was "not at all unusual" for members of his party to have opposing views. "We see that frequently," he said.
In fact, McConnell has blessed several bipartisan deals with Democrats since the GOP entered the Senate minority last year, including a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, a sweeping industrial policy bill aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness with China, a postal-reform measure and more. In each case, McConnell and his allies said, the desire to show cooperation and progress on matters of public concern outweighed the political risks of handing Democrats a victory.
Gun violence, however, posed an especially potent test, and the Uvalde tragedy came at an particularly sensitive moment — amid a midterm primary season where several GOP senators have faced or are about to face primaries against more-conservative challengers.
But McConnell's allies said there was political logic to the decision to cut a modest deal with Democrats and demonstrate to the public that the GOP is not an immovable obstacle to action to address the drumbeat of mass shootings.
"I think the country wants us to find some common ground in the area of unstable people using weapons, of trying to get better information in the system to stop some of these shootings," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "When you're dealing with 80% support for these ideas, that's a national consensus. And, you know, the 20% — I respect their views, but when the public says, 'Can't y'all do something?' the answer is yes."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who negotiated the bill alongside Cornyn, called the bill "balanced policy" and argued that it effectively short-circuits future efforts at gun control — just as GOP support for the infrastructure bill likely forestalled a much larger party-line Democratic bill.
"If you take a look at what we didn't do — no mandatory waiting periods, no prohibition of any weapons that can be purchased legally today … I think it's reasonable and I think the majority of the American people agree with it," he said.
Yet the political reality of Tuesday's vote was stark, with the deal supported mainly by the Republican senators who are most insulated from electoral repercussions. Even the two GOP senators up for reelection this year who voted to advance the deal Tuesday reflect that fundamental dynamic: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is counting on independent and Democratic crossover voters to survive her reelection effort against a more conservative Republican challenger, and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., emerged unopposed from a May 3 primary.
Young on Wednesday said he was not a guaranteed vote in favor of the final bill, saying he was still "digesting the actual language." But he praised the mental health and school security funding in the bill and called the gun provisions "pretty darn reasonable." If a conservative backlash to the bill is brewing, he said, it wasn't reflected in his constituent feedback.
"The calls are about 10-to-1 in my office — 10 in favor of reasonable prohibitions" on allowing dangerous people to have access to firearms, he said. "For me, it's just listening to my constituents and being responsive, and occasionally government actually needs to do that — to be responsive."
Constituent pressure, however, went the opposite direction for Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who expressed some openness to narrow gun provisions this month. On Wednesday, she said, Wyoming voters who contacted her office had turned "massively" against the pending deal.
"Everybody's concerned now about Second Amendment rights being violated," she said.
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who voted against advancing the deal Tuesday, summarized the message he has gotten from voters as: "Stand tall … Don't give up, don't give any room on the Second Amendment."
He declined, however, to criticize McConnell or other Republicans for embracing the deal and he predicted any political repercussions among the GOP base would be fleeting: "I feel like we've got a good team right now, that we are together, and that we're going to go in there and agree to disagree after this. And I think at the end of the day … folks back home are so locked in on inflation, the price of gasoline, that this is not a top-10 issue for them."
To many of the Republicans backing the deal, meanwhile, any electoral consequences are beside the point. “I’m not sure it’s good politics,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “It’ll save lives — that’s why it’s good.”