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Gun provisions snag mental health reform bill

Gun provisions snag mental health reform bill
© Greg Nash

The fight over gun control is threatening to scuttle a bipartisan mental health reform effort in the Senate as lawmakers rush to get the issue to the floor. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate passes bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday Harris calls for pathway to citizenship for Dreamers on DACA anniversary Senate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court MORE (R-Texas) is in talks with leaders of the Senate health committee to combine his mental health bill with one that passed the committee last month.

But Democrats object to certain sections of Cornyn’s bill that they say would make it easier for mentally ill people to acquire guns, and the controversial provisions could shatter Democratic support for the bill. 

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Provisions in Cornyn’s bill would require a full judicial hearing to ban someone from buying guns due to mental illness and would allow people previously committed for mental illness to purchase a gun as soon as a judge’s commitment order expires. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Rising crime rejuvenates gun control debate on campaign trail MORE (D-Conn.), one of the sponsors of the health committee’s bill, said such provisions would prevent him from supporting the bill.

“We're still talking to [Cornyn] about whether we can move forward without those provisions,” Murphy said. “Obviously I can't support a bill on the floor that has those provisions in it.”

Cornyn disagrees with Democrats’ argument, calling the position “unrealistic.” But he said he is open to discussing changes.

“I’m certainly open to discussing it, but I mean this whole idea that we're not going to have a fulsome discussion about mental health and [the] problems it creates with the criminal justice system, housing and the healthcare field seems kind of unrealistic to me,” Cornyn said. 

Still, he added: “I'm more interested in getting a solution and advancing the ball than I am trying to make a point.”

Murphy is one of the Senate’s strongest proponents of gun control, representing the state where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in 2012.  

Asked if Cornyn has been open to dropping the problematic provisions, Murphy indicated the talks are still in an early stage. 

“We haven't gotten there yet,” he said. 

Also involved in the talks are Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and health committee leaders Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate GOP blocks bill to combat gender pay gap OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump |  Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps program: exclusive MORE (D-Wash.). 

Both sides are still hopeful that some agreement can be reached. Mental health reform is seen as one of the few issues on which a meaningful bipartisan bill could pass this year.

About one in five adults, or 44 million people, experience a mental illness per year, but the number of available psychiatric beds has declined 14 percent in recent years, and families are often prevented by privacy laws from accessing crucial information to help care for family members with mental illness.

But gun politics has long been an obstacle for mental health reform.

Republicans argue for mental health reform as a response to mass shootings, while Democrats contend that mental health reform, while important in its own right, is no substitute for new gun control laws. 

“The two work in tandem, not one as a substitute for the other,” Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a hearing in February in which he denounced the gun-related sections of Cornyn’s bill. “If we did gun legislation, we’d need mental health legislation with real dollars. If we did mental health legislation with real dollars, we’d need gun legislation.”

One fear is that if Cornyn’s gun-related provisions made it into the final bill, it could spark a back and forth with Democrats putting forward their own gun-control amendments, disintegrating the bipartisan calm that would be crucial to passing the bill in an election year. 

Murphy is trying to convince other Democrats not to introduce gun-related amendments of their own.

Even so, a Senate Democratic aide said that moving forward with a clean mental health bill is more likely now than it seemed a few weeks ago.  

Murray said in a statement she is proud of the bipartisan bill that passed committee last month. 

"I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move our bill to the floor and continue building on that bipartisan foundation as soon as possible,” she said. 

Democrats could welcome other provisions of Cornyn’s bill, such as promoting treatment as an alternative to imprisonment for some mentally ill people who commit crimes. 

Murphy said he would be happy to have some of those other provisions included but said “the clock is ticking, so we don't have a lot of time.” 

The bill that passed the health committee last month seeks to improve coordination of mental health programs by granting new powers to an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services and sets up a new office to encourage the adoption of evidence-based programs. It also seeks to push insurance companies to provide better mental health coverage through what is known as parity, which refers to insurers providing equal coverage for mental health and physical health. 

That bill passed the committee on a unanimous vote, partly because more thorny issues were put off until the bill reached the floor. Some advocates have expressed concerns that the bill does too little. 

For example, the question of new funding for mental health still looms. Possible amendments include freeing up Medicaid to pay for more care at mental health facilities or expanding a program to fund urgent care mental health clinics in more states. But the search for offsets for both is tough.