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Wake Up To Politics - June 8, 2022

“This moment is different”
Wake Up To Politics - June 8, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 154 days away. Election Day 2024 is 882 days away.

“This moment is different”: Three vignettes from the fight for gun control

Washington’s attention rarely stays on any one issue for long.

Lawmakers have elections to win, lobbyists to please, a hungry news media to feed: like distracted toddlers, they generally jump from one thing to the next, often starting negotiations on one legislative proposal to great fanfare only to ditch them days later and move on to the new issue du jour.

In the two weeks since the Uvalde shooting, however, the capital’s focus has been on gun control in a manner that is rare for any issue — and especially for guns, a topic that is often discussed in D.C. but has rarely dominated.

Of course, this could change on a dime — but for now, there is a growing sense that Congress could be on the verge of some sort of bipartisan gun control agreement. However narrow the final legislation, if that package passes, it would mark a monumental divergence from the response to past mass shootings, when attention has quickly diminished once it was clear nothing would get passed.

“This moment is different,” actor Matthew McConaughey, an Uvalde native, observed from the White House briefing room on Tuesday.

To that end, I want to open today’s newsletter by sharing three vignettes I’ve witnessed in the past two days, to take you behind the scenes of the gun control movement as it potentially approaches a historic victory:

Scene 1: “Don’t look away”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaks on gun control, flanked by a group of students clad in bulletproof vests. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Busloads of activists have descended on Washington in recent days, all seeking to ensure that Congress’ ever-fleeting focus doesn’t stray from gun control before a package is agreed to.

One of those groups was a contingent of young people from the group Students Demand Action, who stood outside the Capitol on Monday clad in bulletproof vests, trying to make a visual point to lawmakers about the spate of shootings that have targeted America’s schoolchildren. Behind them, their simple message blared in large white letters: “Don’t look away.”

A series of lawmakers took to the podium to promise the students they’d take action. “I’m a student of history and I know if you go back in the history books, every great social change movement in history has been led by young people,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, gesturing to the students behind him. “If you want to be successful as a change agent you have to have young people, students, in the lead.”

As is common for Blumenthal at events like these, he was soon upstaged by his more-junior home-state colleague, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who has emerged as the Democratic point man on gun control. When Murphy left the stage, he was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, hungry for any details he could offer on the ongoing negotiations.

He demurred from divulging any real specifics — deploying every senator’s favorite non-answer of refusing to “negotiate in public” — but suggested that the talks were proceeding promisingly.

“There are more Republican senators interested in talking than ever before,” he told me, when I pressed him on why he felt confident that these talks would be different than past, failed negotiations. “There are more ideas on the table than ever before, and there is more pressure from the American public than ever before to get things done.”

“I think we can get there, I really do,” he also said.

Each of the Democrats senators took pains not to raise expectations too much, though. “I’m prepared to fail,” Murphy cautioned at one point. “I’m going to remain a prisoner of hope,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told me as he strolled back to the Capitol after addressing the students.

As we walked-and-talked, a young woman approached Booker. Shaking, she identified herself as a survivor of gun violence. “I just wanted to tell you to push harder,” she told Booker. “However hard you’re pushing, you need to push harder.”

“So let’s both push,” he replied. “Let’s both push.”

Scene 2: “The nation is counting on you”

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) stands amid rows and rows of flowers honoring victims of gun violence. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

This is not the first time Democratic lawmakers have been confident about their odds of sealing a gun control deal, of course.

Back in 2021, Murphy told me he was feeling good about negotiations he was then holding with Republicans to expand background checks — talks which would soon collapse.

When he told me that, we were standing amid a striking display that had been set up by the organization founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who survived an assassination attempt while she was in Congress. The group had placed 40,000 flowers outside the Capitol to honor the annual number of gun violence victims.

On Tuesday, Murphy and Giffords — and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — were back for a similar display. This time, they stood beneath the towering Washington Monument; this time, there were 45,000 flowers, to honor 5,000 added victims.

“Be bold. Be courageous,” Giffords appealed to her former lawmaker colleagues, each word still a struggle 11 years after suffering severe brain injuries from the shooting. “The nation is counting on you.”

As a parade of Congress’ top Democrats spoke, I kept my eyes fixed on Murphy, increasingly the man at the center of the moment. Standing to the side, the Connecticut senator kept his hands in his pocket and barely ever looked up, occasionally glancing at his phone (which few other lawmakers dared to do in front of the television cameras).

His colleagues repeatedly sounded calls for specific gun control proposals: banning assault weapons, for example, or at least raising the age to buy them. Each time, all of the other Democrats would clap — except for Murphy. As the man inside the room at all the ongoing talks, perhaps he knows such proposals are already off the table.

Again, he left the event early. Even as the titularly more powerful Schumer spoke, a swarm of reporters decamped to gaggle around Murphy once again. He offered a similar collection of non-answers, before an aide insisted he had a meeting he had to go to.

The White House would soon announce that the meeting was an audience with the president, Biden’s first briefing on the gun control talks Murphy has been leading. “Sorry, guys,” Murphy said as he climbed in the car. “I’ve gotta run.”

Scene 3: “Not only dead, but hollow”

Actor Matthew McConaughey delivers an impassion speech on guns in the White House briefing room. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Murphy was not the only advocate for gun control who stopped by the White House on Tuesday.

Actor Matthew McConaughey also paid a visit to the president, as well as to the reporters who cover him in the White House press room.

Of all the speeches I heard on gun control in the past two days — from senators, congressmen, activists — McConaughey’s might have been the most emotional, and the most forceful. The politicians I heard had all delivered those same speeches hundreds of times, and you could tell; coming from outside the world of politics (and with a Hollywood flair), McConaughey’s delivery was less rote and more raw.

In searing detail, McConaughey spoke about some of the victims from the attack in his native Uvalde: about Alithia and her dreams to go to art school; about Maite, who wanted to be a marine biologist; about Irma and Joe, the teacher who was killed in the shooting and her husband who died the next day of a broken heart. They planned to open up a food truck together when they retired.

True to his acting craft, McConaughey brought props: a piece art drawn by Alithia; Maite’s green Converse shoes, the only thing that allowed her parents to identify her when she was killed. “Most of the bodies [were] so mutilated that only DNA tests or green Converse could identify them,” McConaughey explained, using the kind of graphic detail politicians often shy away from. “Many children were left not only dead, but hollow.”

A gun owner with bipartisan appeal, McConaughey was there to reach across the aisle, repeatedly affirming the importance of the Second Amendment. And although he advocated for expanded background checks and raising the AR-15 purchasing age, McConaughey’s briefing room oration was as much a call for unity and a higher form of politics as it was a gun control speech.

“I promise you, America — you and me — we are not as divided as we’re being told we are,” he said. “How about we get inspired?  Give ourselves just cause to revere our future again.”

But if anyone thought McConaughey might succeed where many seasoned pols have failed, and heal America’s long-running national rift, those hopes could be dashed as soon as he walked towards the door, just after encouraging Washington to “make the loss of these lives matter.”

“Were you grandstanding just now, sir?” James Rosen, the correspondent from the right-wing Newsmax network, yelled out. Gasps ran through the room, as other reporters shook their heads in shock. “What an asshole,” one could be heard muttering. The partisan divide remained unbridged.

And now?

Sen. Chris Murphy, increasingly the man of the moment. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

“We are in a window of opportunity right now that we have not been in before,” McConaughey said at the White House on Tuesday, referring to the unusually sustained energy in Washington around doing something on guns.

Will lawmakers climb through the window, or let it slam shut as they have so often in the past?

Almost everyone I heard speak in the past few days seemed confident that the bipartisan Senate negotiations would yield some sort of deal, that this moment feels different than those in the past.

The Democrats who spoke seemed less excited, though, when confronting the prospect of what that something would be.

Murphy said on the National Mall on Tuesday that he “would not settle for a piece of legislation that checks a box,” but he’s hardly in a position of leverage: 10 Republicans are needed to advance any piece of legislation through the Senate. In all likelihood, he’ll take whatever those 10 will give him.

Indeed, Republican negotiators have suggested that an eventual compromise won’t even include an expansion of background checks — which has been the cornerstone of most bipartisan gun efforts in the past.

“I think it’s not going to be comprehensive,” Booker told me on Monday. “I think anything that gets done will be incremental. It will be things that are probably necessary, but nowhere near sufficient to stop the carnage that we’re seeing.”

But if past negotiations are any guide, even something incremental will likely have to happen soon — while momentum is still hot — if it is to happen at all.

That’s because it’s unlikely that Washington’s undivided attention will remain on gun control for long. On Thursday, the January 6 committee will hold its first hearing. Soon, the Supreme Court will issue its ruling on abortion. Other hot-button issues will inevitably pop up as well.

The window McConaughey described remains open, but it won’t stay that way for long.

More news you should know

California elections: “S.F. DA recalled, L.A.’s Caruso advances as Democrats tested on crime” Washington Post

Ukraine: “Russia claims advances in Ukraine amid fierce fighting” Associated Press

Gas prices: “Gasoline tops $5 a gallon in 13 states as U.S. nears $6 summer” Bloomberg

Supreme Court: “Armed man who sought to kill Brett Kavanaugh arrested near Supreme Court justice’s home” CNBC

Covid vaccines: “Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine backed by FDA advisers” Wall Street Journal

Justice Brett Kavanaugh (left) during his swearing-in. (Joyce Boghosian / White House)

What’s going on in government today

All times Eastern.

President Biden will travel to Los Angeles to host the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from across the Western Hemisphere. The summit has gotten off to a rocky start, amid announcements from the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that they will boycott the summit in protest of the Biden administration’s decision not to invite the dictatorial leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

Biden will depart for LA at 11:15 a.m. and touch down at 4:30 pm. Then, at 5:40 pm, he’ll tape an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which will air tonight at 11:35 pm. It will be his first in-person appearance on a late-night talk show as president, and his first televised one-on-one interview since February.

Finally, Biden will greet with heads of delegations attending the Summit of the Americas at 7 pm and deliver remarks in the summit’s opening ceremony at 8:15 pm.

Vice President Harris is also in Los Angeles. She’ll deliver remarks at 2 pm at a meeting of CEOs held as part of the Summit of the Americas, followed by a 5 pm visit to a local child care center, followed by 8 pm remarks at the summit’s opening ceremony.

Second Gentleman Emhoff is also in LA. He’ll deliver remarks at 12 pm at a meeting of young leaders as part of the Summit of the Americas, meet with representatives of the USC Shoah Foundation at 1pm to learn about their program recording testimonials of Holocaust survivors, and accompany Harris to the summit opening ceremony at 8 pm.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, will not be attending the Summit of the Americas. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Senate will convene at 10 am and resume consideration of H.R. 3967, a bipartisan bill providing health care benefits and access to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service. The chamber is expected to hold a vote advancing the measure by voice vote.

At 11:30 am, the chamber will vote on confirmation of a Labor Department nominee and a district judge nominee. Other votes are possible later in the day.

The House will convene at 10 am, hold debate, and then vote on H.R. 7910, a sweeping gun control package which would raise the purchasing age for semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, outlaw high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, subject ghost gun purchases to background checks, increase the penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchases of guns, and strengthen safe storage laws requiring guns be kept away from children.

The chamber will then vote under “suspension of the rules” on nine uncontroversial pieces of legislation:

  1. H.R. 7352, the PPP and Bank Fraud Enforcement Harmonization Act
  2. H.R. 7334, the COVID-19 EIDL Fraud Statute of Limitations Act
  3. H.R. 5879, the Hubzone Price Evaluation Preference Clarification Act
  4. H.R. 7622, the Small Business Workforce Pipeline Act
  5. H.R. 7664, the Supporting Small Business and Career and Technical Education Act
  6. H.R. 7670, the Women-Owned Small Business Program Transparency Act
  7. H.R. 7694, the Strengthening Subcontracting for Small Businesses Act
  8. H.R. 7776, the Water Resources Development Act
  9. H.R. 7667, the Food and Drug Amendments Act

Congressional hearings will include a House Oversight hearing on gun violence at 10 am, including testimony from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a fourth grader who survived the Uvalde shooting by smearing blood over herself and playing dead, and the parents of victims of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings.

Also, House Ways and Means will hold a 10 am hearing with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during which she’ll likely be pressed for the second day in a row on the Biden administration’s response to inflation.

The Supreme Court will release opinions at 10 am in unknown number of the cases that were argued this year. The justices still have a slew of high-profile cases to rule on.

Links to watch for yourself: Senate sessionHouse sessionGun violence hearingYellen hearing

That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe