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Senate Judiciary Committee ties on Biden pick to lead ATF

Schumer says confirmation of Steven Dettelbach this month is ‘one of my top priorities’

Steven Dettelbach, nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, arrives for his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.
Steven Dettelbach, nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, arrives for his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Clarified 1:48 p.m. | The Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked on President Joe Biden’s pick to be the nation’s top gun regulator Thursday amid a nascent effort to pass legislation following a wave of mass shootings across the country.

Democratic leadership still plans to bring to the floor the nomination of Steven Dettelbach, the former prosecutor picked to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, after the 11-11 vote along party lines.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech after the committee vote that he would start the process to advance Dettelbach’s nomination on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. Confirming Dettelbach in the role would be “one of my top priorities” before the end of the month, Schumer said.

Dettelbach got the backing of key moderates and appears to have the votes for confirmation to become the agency’s first permanent director since 2015.

Chair Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said Dettelbach’s nomination was an important part of Biden’s broader effort to curb gun violence nationwide.

“I cannot overstate the importance of having Senate confirmed leadership at the top of the ATF for stability and for responsiveness for accountability for agency morale,” Durbin said. “This is long overdue.”

Dettelbach’s confirmation hearing occurred the day after a gunman at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students and two teachers, which helped to kickstart congressional efforts to address gun violence.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Texas Republican John Cornyn, has negotiated bill text this week after agreeing to a legislative framework that includes beefed up criminal background checks for those under age 21 and grants for state “red flag” gun seizure laws, mental health and school security provisions.

Cornyn, along with all other Republicans on the panel, voted against Dettelbach’s nomination Thursday. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s top Republican, said he had problems with Dettelbach’s position on gun control provisions and pointed to a drop in firearms prosecutions that occurred while he was a U.S. attorney in Ohio.

Grassley also criticized the Biden administration’s moves to oust former acting director Marvin Richardson in favor of current acting director Gary Restaino.

“I think the agency should be focused on law enforcement,” rather than regulation, Grassley said.

Following the tied vote, Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said one GOP senator “who I will not name told me yesterday he would ‘pass’ on this.’” Leahy said he was “disappointed,” but that the GOP senator “has a right to change his mind.”

Leahy also invoked the currently fragile bipartisan Senate talks around a legislative framework to address gun violence announced over the weekend.

“I’m sorry he did not keep the commitment he made to me, but I think that it makes a mockery of the discussion that, ‘We’re certainly going to do something to stop gun violence, but we can’t vote to have the head of ATF,’” Leahy said.

Dettelbach’s nomination has received the backing of moderate Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, along with Maine independent Sen. Angus King.

Biden pulled his first nominee to the position, David Chipman, last year after Chipman’s gun control advocacy drew criticism from conservatives and some Democrats.

The agency has only had one Senate-confirmed director, B. Todd Jones, since a 2006 law made it subject to Senate confirmation. Jones left the agency in 2015, and it has gone without a permanent director since.

This report was revised to clarify the scope of background check changes included in an agreement about a legislative framework.

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