The decision of the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, to try for a negotiated compromise on new gun laws in the wake of the latest pair of mass shootings may prove to be a high-stakes bet on representative democracy itself, made at a time when faith in Congress — and the Senate in particular — is in tatters in both parties.
President Biden’s promise on Sunday to the families of the shooting victims in Uvalde, Texas — assuring them that “we will” do something about gun violence — raised the pressure on a Senate in which filibusters and disunity have been the watchwords of the past year.
By raising expectations that a bipartisan deal on gun safety, mental health and school security is even possible, Mr. Schumer is intensifying the spotlight — not only on Republicans and whether they will come to the table in good faith, but also on the institution of the Senate and its ability to grapple with a pressing national issue like gun violence, so searing in its trauma and obvious in its impact.
On Monday, the government in Canada banned handgun sales and proposed legislation requiring that most owners of “military-style assault weapons” turn over their rifles to a government buyback program.
Nothing like that is in the offing in Washington. But even if a compromise means scaling back gun control legislation, it would be worth it, said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, the Democrats’ chief negotiator, to get legislative momentum for more stringent measures and to reassure the parties and their voters that representative democracy can still function.
“We need to show Republicans that they can strengthen the background check system in a meaningful way and get politically rewarded for it,” he said in an interview. “That’s why I’m willing to look at things that might be less than what I would like.”
The bipartisan group of 10 senators working on the issue was to have a Zoom call on Tuesday to work out a framework for negotiations during the holiday recess, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told reporters on Monday. Congress will be back in session June 6.
Failure on this — which many Democrats, including Mr. Schumer, concede is likely after a decade of similar efforts have collapsed — would be lumped onto a growing pile of disappointments that have depressed Democratic voter enthusiasm since the party took control of Washington.
Among the defeats: a major bill on voting rights and democracy reform, far-reaching legislation on social welfare and climate change, and an effort to guarantee abortion access. Then there are the achievements that are being wiped away because Democrats lack the 60 votes to keep them alive, including the expiration of an expanded child tax credit that dramatically lowered child poverty rates while it was in place and the looming expiration of enlarged health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Murphy said that even on sports talk radio, commentators and callers were talking about the mass shootings — and glumly dismissing the prospects of action. But that does not obviate the urgency.
“When people give up on us dealing with the most important and most existential issues, it means they’re giving up on democracy itself,” he said. “And so I think the stakes are high — not just because we’ve got to save lives but also because people’s faith in this whole enterprise is going to disappear if we can’t deliver.”
In an evenly divided Senate and facing Republican obstruction, Democrats say they should be commended for their successes on measures like a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and postal reform, which have been discussed for years but never accomplished. More achievements could be coming, such as aiding veterans harmed by open-air “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanding domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
But none of that is likely to have the resonance of action on guns — which polls show is supported on both the left and the right. The negotiations also come at a moment when some in both parties are ready to give up on the Senate’s ability to function without major structural changes.
Already, some liberals are pressing to expand the Supreme Court and do away with the filibuster, arguing that Senate Republicans’ partisan treatment of nominees has unfairly stacked the court and that compromise with the Republican Party is impossible.
Some conservatives have questioned the very bedrock of representative democracy, nominating Republican candidates for the coming midterm elections who have falsely declared the 2020 election stolen and indicated a willingness to warp the outcome of future elections.
And in truth, though Americans’ faith in Congress is minute, most do not even know how bad the Senate has become. Without time to watch C-SPAN, few are aware that the world’s supposedly greatest deliberative body has spent most of its time of late churning through confirmations of midlevel executive branch officials and federal judges. Those nominations — once routinely approved unanimously — now take days and must be considered one at a time.
Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, said such sclerosis had ebbed and flowed in the past. Harry S. Truman routinely railed against the “good-for-nothing, do-nothing Congress” that failed to pass legislation to establish federal health insurance, protect civil rights or even stop the lynching of Black Americans in the South.
But, Mr. Dallek added, the nation feels like a tinderbox right now.
“They are putting democracy in danger because the frustration that comes can lead to civil strife,” Mr. Dallek said. “The nation is terribly divided at the moment.”
David W. Blight, a Yale historian and expert on the breakdown of American governance before the Civil War, spoke of the hollowing of the political center in the mid-19th century and, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, congressional paralysis.
A successive string of Southern or pro-Southern presidents, from James K. Polk in 1845 to James Buchanan in 1857, and a Supreme Court stacked with pro-slavery justices left a Northern majority enraged by minority rule.
As the nation began tearing apart, lawmakers embarked on ever more desperate searches for compromise, he said, and their failures only accelerated the dissolution.
“Today, we don’t have a single issue like slavery but five or six huge issues that we are horribly divided over,” Professor Blight said, ticking off guns, voting rights, abortion, climate change and election administration. “My worry is that we don’t have institutions that can hold us anymore, and that is what happened in the 1850s. The institutions broke down.”
A handful of Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to come to the table on gun safety, perhaps to dust off the failed 2013 legislation by Senators Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers. Another possible point of negotiation are so-called red flag laws that make it easier for judges and law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed potentially dangerous to themselves or others.
“I do believe that we will be looking at ways to improve our background checks,” said Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah. “I’ve been looking at Toomey-Manchin as a piece of legislation and seeing if that would make a difference. And I do believe that red flag laws and states are helpful.”
Bipartisan discussions helped produce the infrastructure law that so far might be President Biden’s biggest legislative achievement. But other efforts, such as talks to rewrite the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and to find common ground on voting rights, have produced nothing, despite pronouncements of great optimism.
To get to 60 votes on a gun bill, Democrats would need unanimity on their side and 10 Republicans, not the four who began negotiating last week. The worst mass shooting at an elementary school, the massacre in Newtown, Conn., nearly a decade ago, was not enough to break a Republican filibuster.
This time, Democrats are being careful not to raise expectations too high that the second-worst slaughter, the death of 19 children in Uvalde, will yield a different result.
The ranks of Senate Republicans have grown only more conservative since the carnage in Newtown, and a vast majority of them have not budged in their opposition to any measure that would limit gun access.
“To be clear: Using this horror to infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens — before we even know what might have prevented this tragedy — and accusing anyone who disagrees of being complicit in this abhorrent crime is not a solution that will make us safer,” said Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee.
Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, said he understood the need to try negotiations.
“We know we can pass legislation that will be supported by 88 percent of Americans, for example in the case of background checks, but we need to have 60 votes in the Senate for that to become law,” he said.
If it fails, he said, voters will have the last word in November at the ballot box.
But many Democrats simply do not believe Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith, even after the heartbreak of Uvalde. Republicans insist that protecting individual liberty is more important than a collective response to gun violence, then push to criminalize abortion, said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts.
“This is about a set of far-right views that entail using the government aggressively when it advances their agenda and leaving the government behind when that’s what gets them as far as they want to go,” she said, adding, “These are not people of principle.”
How this plays out in November’s midterm elections is unknown. With voters most concerned about inflation, gas prices and anger at the ruling party in Washington, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the Democrats’ chances of holding the House again on Thursday, predicting a Republican pickup of between 20 and 35 seats.
That result would give the Republican Party one of its largest majorities in decades. In turn, Republican leaders would declare a mandate to relax regulations on gun ownership, not tighten them.
Those political prospects could inform how willing Republicans will be in the coming days to compromise on gun rights, an issue that has become central to their party.
“It’s one thing to say that, regardless of the facts, you should just do something,” said Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota. “The question is whether something you would do would actually make a difference.”