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Clock is ticking on the Senate’s gun deal: Negotiators stuck on two issues as recess looms

Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The clock is ticking for Senate negotiators working to reach a final agreement on an anti-gun violence package before the Fourth of July recess.

After agreeing earlier this month on a framework for the deal — including enhanced background checks for those ages 18-21 and funding for mental health and school safety programs — negotiators trying to turn the agreement into legislative text left Washington over the weekend without a clear path forward on two outstanding elements: “red flag” laws and closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” by expanding a ban on domestic abusers owning firearms.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn, of Texas, and Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, have been huddled with Democratic colleagues Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, in efforts to turn their broad consensus into an actual piece of legislation that can be considered and taken up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Though tensions ran high at the close of last week, a source close to the negotiations told ABC News on Sunday that discussions were back on track and that they were “moving in the right direction.”

But time is running out for quick action, which many in Congress would prefer.

The Senate is set to depart for a two-week recess at the close of business this week. Pushing a vote on the legislation until after the break threatens to slow momentum for a package already struggling to find a home in the Republican conference.

A senior Democratic leadership aide told ABC that bipartisan negotiators must produce bill text by Tuesday, at the latest, to keep the upper chamber on track for a vote this week.

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on Monday, would not say whether he thought negotiators would have the legislative text finalized by later that day. But he expressed some optimism about the state of the talks.

“I’m confident that … there’s a serious, serious negotiation that’s getting close to becoming fruition,” Biden said. He pointed to the success of some state laws in controlling gun violence but ultimately added that “it’ll be better if we had better regulation of sale of firearms, nationally and nationally mandated.”

Biden won’t get the assault weapons ban he called for in an address to the nation after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead — days after a separate shooting in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store killed 10. Still, lawmakers working on the package in the Senate hope their proposal, if passed, could make an impact on the high tide of gun violence.

But two outstanding topics have plagued bipartisan negotiators.

The framework, announced on June 12 with the filibuster-proof support of 10 Senate Republicans, included funding to incentivize states to implement “red flag” laws to remove firearms from people who are a danger to themselves and others. Lawmakers have struggled, in recent days, to define what sort of programs would qualify for that funding.

According to Cornyn, the chief Republican working on the deal, negotiators were struggling last week over whether monies made available to states to support such programs should also be available to states with other types of violence prevention, like veterans’ courts, mental health courts and assisted outpatient treatment programs.

Some Republicans have long struggled with “red flag” programs out of concern that those provisions violate the due process rights of those accused of being a threat.

Cornyn told reporters Thursday that he and the other senators were still “grappling with the contours” of the laws but assured, as he has in floor speeches, that states who qualify for funding under the proposed legislation would be held to “the most rigorous due process standards that exist.”

The group has also stumbled over how to draft legislative text aimed at closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Under current law, those convicted of domestic violence against their married partner or against those with whom they have a child are prohibited from purchasing guns. Democrats want to expand that language to include other kinds of dating partners.

But the group working on the Senate bill has had trouble agreeing upon a legal definition of a “boyfriend,” and Cornyn has expressed concerns about how such a change might be implemented.

“We’ve got to come up with a good definition of what that actually means, because what this does is it would add a category to a bar for people being able to purchase a firearm if they fall in that category,” Cornyn said last week. “So it’s got to be clear and it’s got to be something that can actually be applied, because we are talking about pretty serious consequences.”

The difficulty finalizing these outstanding topics emphasizes the pinch that many Republicans are feeling as they weigh supporting the first significant gun reform legislation in nearly 30 years.

Cornyn said, upon announcement of the original framework, that he hoped more than the 10 original GOP senators would ultimately back the finalized legislation. But as Republicans involved have tried to drum up additional support from their conference, they faced yet another warning of the potential political consequences on Friday when Texas Republicans at the state’s party convention booed Cornyn as he tried to defend the package.

“I will not, under any circumstance, support new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners,” Cornyn told the audience. “That will always be my red line. And despite what some of you may have heard, the framework that we are working on is consistent with that red line.”

The anger from the crowd was clear — though crossing the GOP base may not ultimately sway the crucial block of 10 Republicans. Cornyn would not go up for reelection until 2026. None of the other conservatives who signed onto the initial framework will face voters during the 2022 midterm races in November.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell last week signaled willingness to support new gun legislation if it mirrored the proposals outlined in the group’s framework.

“My view of the framework if it leads to a piece of legislation I intend to support it I think it is progress for the country and I think the bipartisan group has done the best they can to get total support and the background check enhancement for that age group I think is a step in the right direction,” McConnell said Tuesday.

Other Republicans have also said they’re amenable to the broad details. But they’ll need to see text before they can make a determination.

ABC News’ Trish Turner and Rachel Scott and Sarah Kolinovsky contributed to this report

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