Maine’s two U.S. senators stand to play an outsized role in determining whether President Joe Biden’s second pick to lead a key federal law enforcement agency is confirmed, but they gave little indication of how they might lean after he announced his nominee.
The Democratic president announced Monday that he was nominating Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a federal agency responsible for a range of issues including enforcing gun laws. He was quickly opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Both Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Sen. Susan Collins have somewhat moderate views on gun issues. It puts King at the center of Dettelbach’s success as one of the Democratic caucus members least likely to back him. Collins’ vote is not needed to confirm him in Democrats’ 50-50 Senate, but she is on a short list of Republicans who might consider backing him.
Last year, King’s opposition effectively killed the nomination of David Chipman, Biden’s previous pick to lead the agency, though King never spoke publicly about his concerns. Collins came out early against Chipman’s nomination. Both were non-committal on Dettelbach this week.
A spokesperson for King said he was still “initiating a review” of the nominee and believed it was important for the director to be someone “trusted to be even-handed,” since the agency is focused on law enforcement and not policymaking. A spokesperson for Collins, who recently contracted COVID-19, said she would review the nomination in the coming weeks.
Biden does not need Republican support to confirm Dettelbach but will need all 50 members of the Democratic caucus if no Republicans cross the aisle to back him. The last few nominees to lead the bureau have been withdrawn after Senate opposition. Chipman’s nomination was pulled in September after King and two Democrats declined to back him publicly.
A King spokesperson acknowledged then that the senator had reservations about Chipman, an agency veteran turned lobbyist for the gun safety group Giffords. Collins cited Chipman’s past comments about gun owners, characterizing him as “unusually divisive.”
Biden is hoping for a different path with Dettlebach. The White House touted support for his nomination this week from Republican-appointed prosecutors, including Rod Rosenstein, who was deputy attorney general under former President Donald Trump.
But the NRA was quick to brand the former U.S. attorney as a “failed anti-gun politician.” During an unsuccessful run for Ohio attorney general in 2018, Dettelbach called for universal background checks, reinstating a ban on assault-style weapons, restricting access to guns for people with serious mental health issues and taking them away from domestic violence perpetrators, WOSU reported then.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the top gun-rights group here whose political arm fought Chipman’s nomination, is still examining Dettelbach’s background, but the nominee’s support for certain measures might raise “red flags,” said David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director.
Maine generally has a reputation as a gun-friendly state, although both Collins and King have at times indicated support for expanding background checks. Voters here rejected a referendum that would have expanded background checks here in a close 2016 election.
Gun control backers have praised Dettelbach. Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said he had “a lot of promise” and would hopefully draw fewer objections from Maine’s senators since he lacks Chipman’s ties to a prominent advocacy group.
He said the coalition would encourage both Collins and King to vote in favor, saying support from Collins could send a signal to other moderate Republicans.
“I think the most important thing here is not only having a quality nominee, but finally getting someone in that position, because we’ve had an acting director of the ATF for so long,” Bickford said.
Since the ATF director position became subject to Senate confirmation in 2006, only one nominee has been confirmed to lead it — B. Todd Jones, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in 2013 after serving as acting director for two years. King voted to confirm Jones, while Collins opposed him and only one Republican voted in favor.
Trump nominated Chuck Canterbury, the leader of the national Fraternal Order of Police, to lead the agency in 2019, but that nomination was eventually withdrawn after opposition from Republicans, who had a majority in the Senate at the time and raised concerns about the police union’s support for gun-control policies under Canterbury’s leadership.