WASHINGTON — The massacre in Texas cast a pall over confirmation hearings Wednesday for Steven Dettelbach, President Biden’s pick to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but it may have improved his chances of being confirmed.
White House officials knew the hearings would be a make-or-break moment for Biden’s stalled agenda on gun control. With unanimous Republican opposition expected, they cannot afford a single Democratic defection in an evenly divided Senate.
The dynamic shifted less than 24 hours before Dettelbach appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when an 18-year-old man wielded a semi-automatic rifle to kill 19 schoolchildren, a teacher, and another adult at a school in Uvalde.
The shooting raised the stakes of the fast-tracked hearing, bringing into even starker relief the differences between Dettelbach, a mainstream Democrat who supports his party’s call for renewal of an assault weapons ban, and Republicans who have portrayed him as a threat to Second Amendment rights.
Republicans, who had been expected to grill him over his previous support for a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, adopted a notably less confrontational tone than they did in their harsh questioning of David Chipman, the administration’s first ATF nominee, who was forced to withdraw in the fall for lack of Democratic support.
And in the hours after Dettelbach’s testimony, two of the three members of the Democratic caucus who were seen as undecided — Jon Tester of Montana and Angus King of Maine — praised his restrained appearance before the committee and suggested they were leaning toward supporting him, according to Democrats.
It is still not clear where the remaining member, Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, stands. But White House officials have said they are cautiously optimistic that he will support Dettelbach — partly because he had backed Chipman, who was a far more polarizing nominee.
Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor in Ohio, began his testimony before the Judiciary Committee with a somber expression of grief for those killed a day earlier.
“My thoughts are very much with the community in Texas and other communities” that have suffered similar tragedies in the past, he said. News of the shooting Tuesday made him squeeze his children a “little harder,” he added, as his family sat behind him.
The most pointed exchange came when Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and a supporter of gun rights, questioned Dettelbach over his support of an assault weapons ban, a position Dettelbach promoted during an unsuccessful campaign for Ohio attorney general in 2018.
“How would you define an assault rifle?” Cotton asked, repeating a line of inquiry that tripped up Chipman during his hearing.
Rather than directly answering the question, Dettelbach first deferred to Congress and state legislatures; pressed on the topic, he offered a lengthy explanation of why he believed that defining an assault weapon was “difficult,” consuming much of Cotton’s allotted time.
Compared with Chipman, Dettelbach has made few public policy pronouncements on guns, leaving other Republicans on the committee to ask scattershot questions about his work on gun cases as a prosecutor.
Installing a new ATF director is one of the few consequential moves Biden’s administration can still make. The two major policy changes Biden espoused during the 2020 campaign — reviving an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and imposing universal background checks on gun buyers — have been blocked by Senate Republicans.
“I’ve been talking to a number of Democrats who say how favorably impressed they have been with him, how favorably toward him they feel, but they want to watch the hearings just to make sure,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and a friend of Dettelbach’s who has been working colleagues on his behalf.
“I’m pretty certain we’re going to confirm him,” he added.