Jun 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Conservative backlash builds against Cornyn's gun talks

John Cornyn
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Frustration inside the Senate GOP conference is boiling among conservatives at the way Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is handling the bipartisan gun reform negotiations — putting the man who aspires to succeed Mitch McConnell as Republican leader in a political jam.

Why it matters: Some senators are viewing these negotiations as a test case for how Cornyn would fare as lead negotiator for the party should he replace McConnell one day.

Driving the news: Multiple sources with direct knowledge say the GOP senators who are uneasy about the negotiations include Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), among others.

  • McConnell has thus far supported Cornyn's efforts, saying he's "comfortable" with the bipartisan gun deal and will support the bill if it "ends up reflecting what the framework indicated."

Behind the scenes: At Tuesday's private Senate GOP lunch, several senators questioned Cornyn about the proposal and pushed for specific details about what the legislation would entail.

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) "very vocally" requested more information from Cornyn on the substance of the framework. Those requests were rebuffed, three sources familiar with the lunch told Axios.
  • The proposal to incentivize state red flag laws has been especially unpopular among conservatives. Sens. Crapo, Cruz and others have voiced their concerns to leadership about it potentially becoming too easy to strip Americans of their right to bear arms.
  • And Scott, the chairman of the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, feels snubbed by the bipartisan group after holding early talks with Cornyn and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
  • "No one's telling me anything. I've just asked for the text, and I haven’t gotten anything," Scott told Axios. "My whole goal is that we shouldn't be rushing something like this through; we should take our time."

Hawley told Axios he's "not a big fan of the framework as it's been announced ... I'm tracking what's been reported in the press. I understand the framework is shifting. But you know, I'm not a huge fan of it."

  • "I'm at a disadvantage because I'm not part of the negotiations," Hawley added. "I don't know where they are. All I know is what I read secondhand from you all."

Between the lines: Several senators feel they've been shut out of the negotiating process and kept in the dark about crucial details, and will be asked to take a politically tough vote without enough time to digest the bill.

  • One GOP senator, speaking to Axios on the condition of anonymity to be candid about his concerns, branded Cornyn's approach: "Shut up, and vote."
  • "There's considerable unhappiness in the conference that we seem to be approaching a bill that will unite all the Democrats and divide the Republicans," said another senior Republican with direct knowledge of the internal talks.
  • The senior Republican mentioned that Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked Cornyn during one lunch, "Are we focusing on gang violence and inner-city murders? And the response was, 'No, we're not focusing on that' ... And more than a few of us wondered why the hell not?"
  • "It would be prudent, and I think Sen. Cornyn knows this … it would be prudent to give senators plenty of time to read the bill and research the issues," Kennedy told Axios.

"We're being told that Schumer wants to vote next week," the senior Republican added. "And that the Republicans engaged in negotiations are fine with that. Even though nobody's seen bill text, nobody's seen anything more than a couple of bullet points on a one-pager."

  • "And there's considerable concern that Republicans will join with Schumer in blocking amendments and forcing the package as a take it or leave it."

Yes, but: Leadership was skeptical that some of these conservative senators would vote for any gun deal they might come up with, given the makeup of their constituencies and — for some of them — suspected presidential aspirations.

  • Meanwhile, the bipartisan group has been in a stalemate over the final text because Cornyn is trying to get stronger due process protections for red flag laws after hearing from these members.
  • He's also seeking to limit the extent of closing the "boyfriend loophole" — which would keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, unmarried or not.

The big picture: The disquiet among Republican senators grew louder when leadership decided to bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee and bring the tightly negotiated bill to the floor before the Senate's July 4 recess.

  • Cornyn's initial aspiration was to put forward a bipartisan bill that could win the support of 20 or more Republicans — not just eke out passage with the 10 Republican votes required to break the filibuster.
  • "That [approach] was in response to the complaint that they were going to pick off 10 Republicans and divide our conference," a GOP senator told Axios. "And what do we get? Last weekend we get a press release with 10 Republican senators and the suggestion it's happening whether you like it or not."

The other side: Cornyn is aware of the growing conservative backlash and has sought to tamp it down in a series of media appearances and in public remarks — including today, when he walked out of negotiations and told reporters: "It's fish or cut bait. I don't know what they have in mind, but I'm through talking."

  • He's also emphasized the provisions he fought to keep out of the bill, such as raising the age to purchase assault weapons to 21.
  • Cornyn has rebranded "red flag laws" — a toxic phrase among conservatives — as "crisis intervention."
  • He's said he wants states to have the option to use the federal grant money to "incentivize" them to pass red flag laws for other purposes.

A Cornyn aide told Axios the senator and his staff have answered several questions and taken feedback from many of these members and their staff every day this week.

  • "Cornyn has been talking to and answering questions one on one from multiple of these members. He or our staff has been in particularly close contact with Crapo and Lee."
  • "Part of the reason McConnell selected him is because he has credibility and a track record on this issue and has a wide reach across the board among members," a Senate GOP leadership aide said. “He is uniquely suited to take on this challenge.”

The bottom line: Given his leadership aspirations, Cornyn is taking on a bigger risk than the nine other Republican senators who signed onto the bipartisan gun safety framework.

  • Four of those GOP senators are retiring, and none are up for re-election this year.
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