Key senator may sink Biden’s point man on guns

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President Joe Biden’s pick to head the ATF is running into a surprising holdout who could bring down the nomination: Sen. Angus King of Maine.

The low-key independent, a member of the Democratic Caucus, has declined to publicly state his position on David Chipman, whom Biden nominated to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But he has signaled to both the Biden administration and his Democratic colleagues that he is currently not supportive of the nominee, as he comes under pressure to buck a pick seen as resistant to gun rights in a state where hunting and gun rights are part of many voters’ DNA.

King has told colleagues in the past week that he is currently a “no” on the nomination, according to a Democratic senator. King told the White House in recent days that he is unlikely to vote for Chipman, according to two others familiar with the discussions. All of those sources cautioned that King could change his mind.

Asked on Monday whether he’d made a decision on Chipman, King said his focus was elsewhere.

“I’m working on the infrastructure bill right now,” he said. “I’m not going to give you an answer.”

King’s current position signals that Chipman’s nomination — already facing long odds — is decidedly on the rocks. Several other Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, said this week they remained undecided.

If Chipman can’t get lockstep Democratic support, he would be among the highest-profile Biden nominees to fail in the Senate. Earlier this year, Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget after Manchin announced his opposition, citing her partisan tweets.

The White House and advocates who support Chipman are hopeful that King is at least open to changing his mind by agreeing to meet with people and groups lobbying for the nominee.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

King will meet virtually on Wednesday with Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, which formed after the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut, and Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed in the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in 2018, according to a person familiar with the meetings.

Biden and King also had a recent conversation in which Chipman’s nomination came up, according to two people familiar with the call. And King has also spoken about Chipman with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who started the anti-gun violence group Giffords after a constituent shot her at an event in Arizona in 2011.

Chipman is currently a senior policy adviser at Giffords. He previously served more than two decades at the ATF. In a phone interview, Guttenberg confirmed the meeting and said it was scheduled after King had indicated to Democrats that he was opposed to Chipman.

“He’s never said no publicly,” Guttenberg said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s still taking this under consideration and I’m going to take the time to speak to him.”

Murray, whose group has been in touch with 15 Senate offices, said: “I’m hoping the door is still open. I’m really thankful he’s holding this meeting to listen to what the survivors and surviving communities of mass-shooting tragedies are saying.”

Making matters tougher for the White House, moderate Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, oppose the nomination.

In a statement to POLITICO on Tuesday, Murkowski said she met with Chipman but remained “concerned about his support for broad regulations and how his decisions will affect the lives of law abiding citizens.” That leaves Democrats to come up with the 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris to get Chipman confirmed. Chipman needs a simple majority to win confirmation.

“Still looking at it,” Tester said.

Asked whether the White House should pick someone else at this point, he said: “It’s the administration’s call. ... We’ll continue to look at him.”

Manchin said on Tuesday he remained undecided.

Senate leadership has acknowledged that Chipman doesn’t yet have the votes for final confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination along party lines, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t scheduled a vote to discharge him from committee.

“We are still trying to garner all the votes that we can. Stay tuned,” Schumer said on Tuesday when asked whether he would schedule a vote on Chipman’s nomination. And Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last month that Chipman’s nomination had “a lot of issues.”

Senate Republicans are making Chipman’s nomination a referendum on Democrats’ commitment to the Second Amendment. During his confirmation hearing, GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled the nominee over an interview from last year, in which he said that new gun owners who don’t have training should bring their guns out only “if the zombies start to appear.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has described Chipman as an “anti-gun extremist” and asked that his nomination be withdrawn.

The Sportsmans’ Alliance of Maine is leaning on King to vote no. And the Reload reported about a racial complaint surrounding Chipman, which Democrats have summarily dismissed.

Chipman supports a litany of gun restrictions. He favors banning assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazines, expanding background checks and ending the fairly broad liability shield that firearms manufacturers enjoy. And he has called for ATF to increase inspections of federally licensed gun dealers and use other tools to help curb what he calls a national epidemic.

Chipman has met one-on-one with 17 senators; talked to several law enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs Association; and participated in a Zoom town hall focused on gun rights with West Virginia constituents — hosted by Manchin, according to the White House.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has also reached out to several senators to ask for their support, according to the Justice Department.

The Senate has confirmed only one ATF nominee, B. Todd Jones in 2013, a sign of how controversial the position is.

“This industry doesn’t really care who the name is of the ATF director,” Guttenberg said. “They want to veto the idea of a permanent ATF director and they’re doing everything they can to do that. If it wasn’t David Chipman, they’d be doing the same thing to whoever else it was.”

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