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Biden ATF nominee Dettelbach faces high-stakes Senate confirmation after previous pick fizzled

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President Biden said Monday that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Expolsives (ATF) nominee Steve Dettelbach is “immensely qualified” and the kind of person who was confirmed unanimously to be a U.S. attorney in 2009.

But amid increasing partisanship, particularly over gun issues, the ATF hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015. And with the Senate split 50-50, Dettelbach may need to keep the support of all 50 Senate Democrats if he wants to break that trend – something that’s been difficult for some of Biden’s nominees. 

Dettelbach got some early bipartisan support Monday when multiple GOP-appointed federal prosecutors announced their support for him, as first reported by Fox News. Among them were former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein, a Bush appointee. 

“Steve has devoted his career to public service, establishing himself as a leader with a reputation for building and leading strong law enforcement partnerships, for acting with absolute professionalism and without regard to politics or partisanship, and for always giving his all to fight crime and protect victims,” Wainstein said. 

FILE – U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach holds up the settlement agreement with the City of Cleveland as he speaks at a news conference May 26, 2015, in Cleveland.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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“Steve Dettelbach served for decades as a prosecutor, working hand-in-hand with ATF agents to take down gangs and convict criminals,” White House spokesperson Michael Gwin told Fox News. “If we want to crack down on gun crime and keep our neighborhoods safe, ATF needs a confirmed director, and Steve Dettelbach has received praise from across the political spectrum as someone who can roll up his sleeves and get the job done.”

Dettelbach faces the Senate confirmation process just a few months after David Chipman, Biden’s previous nominee for the slot, was withdrawn due to a lack of support. Chipman’s previous stances on gun control and caustic comments against gun owners led to a forceful campaign against his nomination from the right. 

Dettelach doesn’t share that same history – Chipman worked for gun control activist groups for several years – but some of the same groups and senators say they plan to work just as hard to stop Dettelbach. 

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter told Fox News she sees the Dettelbach nomination as a “rinse and repeat from David Chipman.” The NRA, Hunter said, is having a “hard time finding out which gun control positions he doesn’t support.”

A Senate Republican aide told Fox News that the gun control issues Republicans are likely to focus on are Dettelbach’s previous support for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. Dettelbach held those positions as recently as 2018, when he was running for attorney general of Ohio, according to WOSU

The GOP aide said that “given who the administration previously appointed, you can be sure there will be a rigorous vetting process.”

David H. Chipman speaks at his confirmation hearing to be ATF director on Capitol Hill, May 26, 2021.

David H. Chipman speaks at his confirmation hearing to be ATF director on Capitol Hill, May 26, 2021.
(Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA)

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Biden holds those same gun control positions as Dettelbach, and the nominee would not be in a policymaking position at the ATF. But Republicans say a person’s stance on gun issues is key for a director of the powerful agency.

“I have deep concerns with the radical direction the ATF has been taking over the past 16 months, including an obvious and growing hostility toward Second Amendment rights,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. “I’ll need to hear Mr. Dettelbach’s views on this issue in considerable detail.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called Dettelbach a “gun-grabbing radical that will put Montanans’ Second Amendment rights in jeopardy.” 

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But despite the fierce opposition from Senate Republicans and groups like the NRA to Chipman’s nomination, it wasn’t them who brought him down. Indeed, Republicans in the 50-50 Senate don’t have the power to block any Biden nominees if Democrats stick together – Vice President Harris can break ties on any party-line votes. 

President Biden speaks at the White House on April 1, 2022.

President Biden speaks at the White House on April 1, 2022.
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., and Angus King, I-Maine, never publicly voiced support for Chipman before President Biden withdrew his nomination in September. 

Tester spokesman Roy Lowenstein said Monday that the senator will closely examine Dettelbach’s nomination before making a decision. 

“As a proud gun owner, Sen. Tester believes ATF needs a strong leader to support the agency’s law enforcement mission. Before making a decision on this nomination, Sen. Tester will closely review Mr. Dettelbach’s record to ensure he would support our brave law enforcement officers and respect Montanans’ Second Amendment rights,” Lowenstein said. 

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Spokespeople for Sinema, Manchin, Hickenlooper and King – an independent who caucuses with Democrats – did not comment on the nomination Monday. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., meanwhile, was quick to announce his support for Dettelbach. 

“Confirming a qualified nominee to lead ATF should be a unifying priority in the Senate, yet the problem is the same one that has foiled ATF confirmations since 2015: the gun lobby,” Durbin said Monday. “Mr. Dettelbach is a highly respected former U.S. attorney and career prosecutor who has taken a leading role in countering extremism, including religious-motivated violence and domestic terrorism.”



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