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Inside the drive to flip Trump on gun background checks

Sen. Pat Toomey speaks with President Donald Trump more than once a week about gun reforms in his push, along with Sens. Chris Murphy and Joe Manchin, to tighten background checks | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Pat Toomey approached Chris Murphy on the Senate floor this week with an urgent warning: We’re running out of time to sway President Donald Trump.

“The president’s likely close to making up his mind and he’s getting a lot of pressure from the other side,” Toomey told Murphy. “We need to get before the president and make our pitch before he has a decision-making meeting.”

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With opposition growing to their fledgling effort to expand background checks on gun sales, Murphy (D-Conn.), Toomey (R-Pa.) and their partner Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) decided to call Trump, Murphy recounted.

The three senators were soon on the phone with the president, speaking for 40 minutes and promising to stand firmly behind any agreement they could forge with him on background checks.

The trio’s alliance spans the ideological spectrum — and might bring home the elusive 60 votes needed for the first move to curb gun violence in decades.

The odds remain slim that Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate will act amid stiff resistance from the NRA. But if background checks legislation becomes law, this unusual coalition will be key.

Chris Murphy

Sen. Chris Murphy holds a June news conference to discuss the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A hard-nosed Republican critic of Trump’s trade policy and a doctrinaire fiscal conservative, Toomey speaks with the president more than once a week about gun reforms and trades text messages and phone calls with Murphy.

A lonely Senate moderate, Manchin is suddenly back in Trump’s orbit after the president did all he could to oust him in the 2018 midterms.

Then there’s Murphy, a 46-year-old liberal, who recently said the president “behaves like a child” and is censoring himself whenever Trump veers off gun violence in their conversations.

“The president said a lot of things I deeply disagreed with. I tried my best to hold my tongue,” Murphy said of his recent talk with Trump. “I did my best to stay focused on finding common ground on guns.”

Don’t expect this Gang of Three to partner up the next time the Senate needs to pass immigration, health care or economic legislation. But they’ve become a rock-solid group pushing the president, conservatives and liberals to do something that’s long appeared impossible even as the death toll rises from mass shootings.

“They’re a three-dimensional example of politics making strange bedfellows,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a close friend of Murphy’s. “I can’t imagine them finding common ground on very much outside of this space. But they’re working hard to find it now.”

Toomey and Manchin developed the first iteration of the proposal in 2013, but their push with Trump marks the most serious attempt in Congress since their background checks bill failed under mostly GOP opposition a half-dozen years ago. The Trump White House engaged with Senate negotiators as recently as Thursday night.

And while Murphy supported the Manchin-Toomey measure at the time, the senator representing Newtown has since sought a far more expansive set of new gun regulations, describing himself as a “hard-liner” on the matter.

The unlikely negotiating crew began to take shape during a phone call the president made to Toomey after the August shootings in Texas and Ohio.

“The president called me and he wanted to discuss what I thought we ought to do,” Toomey said. “He didn’t put it as bringing back Manchin-Toomey per se but knowing of my interest in this space, he called.”

After a series of piecemeal conversations among themselves and the president, the senators approached Trump this week with what they say is a compelling message: If they and Trump can sign off on a deal, it will signal to Democratic and Republican leaders that a package can pass. As they see it, uniting the progressive Murphy, conservative Toomey, centrist Manchin and volatile president is the secret sauce the Senate needs to get to 60 votes.

Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

“You’ve got Toomey on one side, you’ve got Murphy on the other, me in the middle,” Manchin said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Though their colleagues are wishing the trio well, expectations are low.

“I wouldn’t bet my house on it. If I were betting your house it would be a ‘maybe.’ This is going to be tough,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “I don’t want to see people pulling something out of their orifices.”

“I’m skeptical. This president changes his mind every 15 minutes,” added Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It’d be nothing short of a political miracle.”

Toomey, Manchin and Murphy are the key players on Capitol Hill in what’s become an ensemble cast trying to put together a firearms package with the mercurial president. But Trump is also receiving competing advice from White House officials, complicating the debate.

White House legislative director Eric Ueland, a former top Senate staffer, is moderating the wide-ranging and lengthy discussions. Still, Murphy said Trump is aware that background checks unite “a lot of folks across the political spectrum.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are working on a proposal that would provide grants for states to implement so-called red flag laws. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz) wants to make domestic terrorism a distinct federal crime. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) embraces cracking down on straw purchases.

Collins is also working on background checks. But she too realizes the importance of the Murphy-Manchin-Toomey triumvirate.

“When you get too many people on it, it can be difficult,” Collins said of the call with Trump, which she knew of beforehand. “It was better to have those who were leading on background checks.”

Expanding background checks is the most ambitious response to the latest wave of gun violence being discussed in Congress, and one that remains deeply controversial in the GOP. But some Republicans appear to be more open to the idea given the president’s softening, including Graham, a close Trump ally who previously opposed Manchin-Toomey.

“These are the most meaningful talks that I’ve seen on this issue in a long time,” said retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who also previously opposed background check expansions.

But Isakson knows how tough moving the president and his own party can be on core issues. He joined a small group of Republicans and most Senate Democrats last year to try and cut an immigration deal with the president, only to see the White House topple the plan.

Guns may be even more challenging.

The Democrats are in the midst their presidential primary, and candidates like Beto O’Rourke are proclaiming that they want to seize assault weapons through mandatory buyback programs. That earned an icy retort from Toomey, who tweeted that the former Texas congressman’s “rhetoric undermines and hurts bipartisan efforts.”

Even with Toomey’s whipping and Trump’s support, a number of Republicans are certain to rebel against any firearms package. Many believe, as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said, “I don’t think more gun control is the answer.”

Murphy, meanwhile, has the difficult task of holding his own party together.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is advocating passage of the House’s universal background checks bill, which Republicans oppose. If Murphy, Toomey, Manchin and Trump can come up with something, it’s certain to fall short of that, and Democrats may balk.

It’s a reality that weighs on the senators even as they say they are closer than ever to what would be a historic achievement.

“The trouble is Manchin-Toomey kind of has to move both ways at the same time,” Murphy said. “I think Republicans want some changes that would get more conservatives on board. … But I don’t think you can get Democratic votes for something that’s fundamentally less than Manchin-Toomey.”

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