IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The latest bipartisan talks to collapse: background checks

Every time bipartisan negotiations collapse, it serves as reminder that making bipartisanship a prerequisite to governing is hopelessly misguided.
Firearms are on display during the NRA's annual convention on May 6, 2018, in Dallas.
Firearms are on display during the NRA's annual convention on May 6, 2018, in Dallas.Loren Elliott / AFP via Getty Images file

It was about three months ago when the Democratic-led House passed a pair of gun reforms, including a bill called the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would require background checks on practically all firearm purchases. It passed 227 to 203, with eight Republicans breaking ranks and supporting the legislation. The response from the political world was muted, and it was easy to understand why.

Sure, the bill would likely make a difference. And sure, it's popular. And sure, President Biden would gladly sign it into law. But the proposal was headed to the Senate, where it would face an inevitable Republican filibuster, which proponents had no chance of defeating.

That said, as we discussed at the time, the door was not completely closed. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading voice on gun reforms, told NBC News in March, "I think a universal background checks bill can get 60 votes."

Note, he said "a" bill, not "the" bill -- suggesting the House version stood no realistic chance of success, but a narrower proposal might have a chance.

To that end, Murphy negotiated with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on a measure to bolster background check rules by tweaking federal rules on who can register as a federal firearms licensee, closing an unintended loophole that allows unlicensed sellers to transfer weapons to dangerous people who skirt the background check system.

Yesterday, those negotiations effectively collapsed.

Bipartisan negotiations seeking a narrow deal on expanding background checks for gun purchases have fallen apart, according to lawmakers involved in the talks.... "[Murphy] knows I'm available and I know he's available if somebody's got a new idea," Cornyn said. "I don't think that there's a lack of goodwill. It's just a hard issue where the country is so divided."

In a written statement, the Connecticut Democrat added, "I have been very open to compromise and I think Senator Cornyn was negotiating in good faith. But we haven't been able to get to a bill that would meaningfully increase the number of gun sales that require background checks. The good news is that I'm still talking with other Republican colleagues about different proposals to expand background checks, and I'm committed to getting something done."

In the grand scheme of things, the breakdown in these negotiations wasn't exactly a stop-the-presses development on Capitol Hill. At issue was a narrow and modest proposal, which was the subject of quiet discussions. A pair of prominent senators, one from each party, sat down in the hopes of working out an agreement, but they couldn't quite settle on a solution. These things happen.

But what's notable is the frequency with which these things happen -- and the appropriate lessons to be learned from the failures.

Democrats tried to strike a bipartisan deal on COVID relief, but Republicans balked. Democrats have tried to reach a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure, but those talks aren't going well, either. Democrats made all kinds of concessions during bipartisan talks on forming an independent Jan. 6 commission, but Republicans wouldn't take "yes" for an answer.

On issue after issue -- voting rights, immigration, gun violence, et al. -- the relevant players keep sitting down, keep looking for common ground, and keep walking away empty handed.

This is hardly surprising. The gap between the two major parties is enormous on a historical scale, so it stands to reason that they'd struggle to reach compromises on many of the biggest issues of the day. It doesn't help that one of the parties has abandoned the pretense of taking policymaking seriously.

But it's against this backdrop that some believe -- and insist -- that nothing of significance in Congress can happen unless both parties link arms, put aside their differences, and work cooperatively on consensus solutions.

Every time bipartisan negotiations end in failure, as happened again yesterday, it serves as reminder that such an approach to governance is doomed.