Conservative senators frustrated at Cornyn’s handling of gun talks

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

Why is this important: Some senators view these negotiations as a test of how Cornyn would fare as the party’s chief negotiator if he ever replaced McConnell.

Driving the news: Multiple sources with direct knowledge say GOP senators who are worried 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 so far backed Cornyn’s efforts, saying he’s “comfortable” with the bipartisan gun deal and will support the bill if it “ends up reflecting what that the frame indicated”.

In the wings: At the private GOP luncheon in the Senate on Tuesday, several senators asked Cornyn about the proposal and asked for specific details about what the legislation would entail.

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) “very vocally” asked Cornyn for more information on the background of the frame. Those requests were rebuffed, three sources familiar with the lunch told Axios.
  • The proposal to urge states to pass red flag laws has been particularly unpopular among conservatives. The senses. Crapo, Cruz and others have raised concerns with leaders that it is potentially becoming too easy to deny Americans 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.).
  • “Nobody tells me anything. I just asked for the text and got nothing,” Scott told Axios. “My goal is that we shouldn’t rush something like this; we should take our time.”

Hawley told Axios he’s “not a big fan of the frame as advertised…I follow what’s been reported in the press. I understand that the frame is changing. But you know, I don’t I’m not a big 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 from you all.”

Between the lines: Several senators feel they have been left out of the negotiation process and kept in the dark about crucial details, and will be asked to take a politically difficult vote without enough time to digest the bill.

  • A GOP senator, speaking to Axios on condition of anonymity to be candid about his concerns, called Cornyn’s approach, “Shut up and vote.”
  • “There is considerable dissatisfaction in the conference that we seem to be approaching a bill that will unite all Democrats and divide Republicans,” said another senior Republican official with direct knowledge of the internal talks.
  • The senior Republican mentioned that Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked Cornyn during a luncheon, “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 not?
  • “It would be prudent, and I think Senator Cornyn knows that… it would be prudent to give senators enough time to read the bill and research the issues,” Kennedy told Axios.

“We are told that Schumer wants to vote next week,” added the top Republican. “And that Republicans engaged in negotiations agree with that. Even though no one has seen the text of the bill, no one has seen anything more than a few bullet points on a page.”

  • “And there’s great concern that Republicans will join Schumer in blocking the amendments and forcing the take-it-or-leave-it package.”

Yes, but: Management was skeptical that some of these Conservative senators would vote for any gun deal they might offer, given the makeup of their constituencies and – for some of them – presumed presidential aspirations.

  • Meanwhile, the bipartisan group is at an impasse over final text because Cornyn is trying to get stronger due process protections for red flag laws after hearing from those members.
  • It also seeks to limit the extent of closing the “boyfriend loophole” – which would keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, single or not.

The big picture: Concern among Republican senators intensified when leaders decided to bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee and introduce the closely negotiated bill ahead of the July 4 Senate recess.

  • Cornyn’s initial aspiration was to introduce a bipartisan bill that could win the support of 20 or more Republicans — not just win passage with the 10 Republican votes needed to break the filibuster.
  • “This [approach] was in response to the complaint that they were going to eliminate 10 Republicans and split our conference,” a GOP senator told Axios. “And what do we get?” Last weekend we got a press release with 10 Republican senators and the suggestion that this is happening whether you like it or not.”

The other side: Cornyn is aware of the growing conservative backlash and has sought to assuage it in a series of media appearances and public remarks – including today, when he walked out of negotiations and told reporters: “C is fish or cut bait. know what’s on their mind, but I’m done talking.”

  • He also highlighted provisions he fought to exclude from the bill, such as raising the age to buy assault weapons to 21.
  • Cornyn rebranded “red flag laws” – a toxic phrase among conservatives – as “crisis intervention”.
  • He said he wanted states to have the ability to use federal grant money to “incentivize” them to pass red flag laws for other purposes.

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

  • “Cornyn has spoken to and answered individual questions from many of these members. He or our staff have been in particularly close contact with Crapo and Lee.”
  • “Part of the reason McConnell chose him is that he has credibility and a track record on this issue and has a broad reach among the membership,” an aide to the GOP leadership told the Senate. “He is uniquely positioned to meet this challenge.”

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

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

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