WASHINGTON — Fifteen Republican senators joined Democrats in passing the biggest gun safety package in three decades, delivering a rare moment of bipartisanship on a politically divisive issue and a much-needed win for President Joe Biden.
The bill's passage was a massive shift in a Republican Party that has always been a firewall against any attempts to restrict gun rights.
But the gun deal's lead GOP negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said the legislation saves lives without infringing upon Second Amendment rights.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the lead negotiator for the Democrats, has been fighting for reform since the mass shooting at Newtown elementary school in December 2012. Survivors of that tragedy and gun safety advocates were in the gallery Thursday night to watch the vote.
Murphy's efforts were renewed last month after a mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school prompted him to call on his colleagues from the Senate floor: "What are we doing?" he asked during a widely shared speech.
The Connecticut senator remembered those words Thursday night.
"What are we doing? Why are we here? Four weeks ago I asked the Senate those two simple questions," Murphy said in a tweet. "Tonight, we delivered the answer. The first significant gun safety bill in 30 years just passed the United States Senate. 65-33. I'm exhausted. And grateful."
Senators ultimately passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act 65-33 Thursday night after nearly two months of passionate floor debates, poignant hearings and the influence of actor Matthew McConaughey.
The vote came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York law, making it easier for Americans to carry handguns.
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The deal is now headed to the House, where it is expected to pass Friday, despite House GOP leaders encouraging their members to vote against it.
However, Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde, Texas, said he will vote in favor of the legislation.
"As a Congressman it's my duty to pass laws that never infringe on the Constitution while protecting the lives of the innocent," he said in a statement Wednesday. "In the coming days I look forward to voting YES on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act."
Even without a single GOP representative, House Democrats have a majority to pass the bill without Republican support and send it to Biden. It's a development the president can tout as an accomplishment at a time when his poll numbers are sinking, as Americans grow more frustrated with inflation and dismal economic forecasts.
Biden called on Congress to "finish the job" and get the legislation to his desk.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday night in a statement to members the bipartisan gun legislation would go to the rules committee first thing in the morning and then "we will head immediately to the floor" for final passage.
The gun legislation could reach the president's desk tomorrow.
"Tonight, after 28 years of inaction, bipartisan members of Congress came together to heed the call of families across the country and passed legislation to address the scourge of gun violence in our communities," Biden said in a statement.
The president has been under pressure to "do something" – a request frequently made by the families of Uvalde victims.
"Families in Uvalde and Buffalo – and too many tragic shootings before – have demanded action," Biden said. "And tonight, we acted."
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Biden and other Democrats had been pushing for a broader package than what's included in the Senate deal, such as an assault weapons ban and restricted gun sales to anyone younger than 21.
But the president has said multiple times, "the perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good."
Democrats and Republicans both got some of what they wanted in the Senate deal, including $15 billion for mental health and school security services.
The 15 Republicans who helped the gun bill advance include Sens. Cornyn; Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Thom Tillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina; Susan Collins of Maine; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Mitt Romney of Utah; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania; Todd Young of Indiana; Roy Blunt of Missouri; Rob Portman of Ohio; Shelley Capito of West Virginia; Bill Cassidy of Louisiana; Joni Ernst of Iowa; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
"The legislation that Senator Cornyn and our colleagues assembled protects the Second Amendment," McConnell said in a statement. "There are no new bans, mandates, or waiting periods for law-abiding citizens of any age. What the bill does contain are commonsense solutions that are overwhelmingly popular with lawful gun owners, such as adding juvenile criminal records and mental health issues into the background check system. It also provides significant new funding for mental health in schools."
The legislation will provide grants to every state as an incentive to adopt "red flag" laws, which allow courts to remove firearms from those deemed a threat to themselves or others. States that do not enact red flag laws may use the money for other crisis-prevention programs.
Senators also approved expanded background checks on gun buyers 21 and younger to include their mental health and juvenile justice records. The legislation forces a waiting period of 10 business days for the seller and authorities to complete the review.
Such a review could have stopped mass shootings last month in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, as well as a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, senators said.
The legislation also closes the so-called "boyfriend loophole," a legislative gray area that leaves some women vulnerable to gun-related domestic violence.
Current law prevents domestic violence offenders from buying guns if they abused their spouses or live-in partners with whom they had children. The Senate legislation would expand the law to include "boyfriends" or partners in a current or recent relationship "of a romantic or intimate nature" who have been convicted of domestic violence.
"This provision alone is going to save the lives of so many women who unfortunately die at the hands of a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend who hunts them down with a firearm," Murphy said.
Though Senators can start their two-week, July 4 recess on a high note, the gun deal is unlikely to end the debate on firearms anytime soon. Democrats have said they will continue to push for more reform, and Republicans are now running on the issue in the midterms, claiming the deal unnecessarily restricts the right to own firearms.
'Upset no matter what happens': Senate gun deal leaves voters on both sides unsatisfied, frustrated
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate passes historic bipartisan gun deal, gives Biden needed win