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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

The one gun step Democrats can take on their own

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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Good morning, Early Birds! Welcome to the unofficial start of summer. And welcome back Theo, who returns to work married and (hopefully) rested. 💍 Congrats again Theo! Tips? earlytips@washpost.com. Thanks for waking up with us. Not a subscriber? Sign up here.

In today’s edition … The latest on the gun legislation discussions … The Post's Matt Viser on President Biden's brother James, who is known in the family as the one who’s always ready to help. But he also has a history of business dealings that resulted in recriminations and lawsuits. … Biden wants to rebuild the EPA, but he doesn’t have the money to do it our colleague Dino Grandoni writes … but first …

On the Hill

One way Senate Democrats can act on guns despite Republican opposition

Regardless of whether there are enough Republicans willing to cut a deal on new gun restrictions (more on that below), there is one thing Senate Democrats can do on their own to impact the nation's gun laws: confirm a permanent director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

President Biden has tapped Steve Dettelbach to lead ATF, the federal agency tasked with enforcing gun laws and prosecuting illicit activity, including gun trafficking. His confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee was last week and he is gaining support among Democrats critical to his quest for confirmation.

Biden's first nominee, David Chipman, had his nomination pulled in September after moderate Democrats signaled they were unlikely to vote for him, tanking his nomination because all Republicans opposed the nomination.

But Dettelbach is securing key votes. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who didn't back Chipman, announced last week he's likely to support him. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), told The Early last week that he met with Dettelbach and is “considering” backing him.

All Republicans are expected to oppose Dettelbach with the agency serving as a boogeyman on the right and a director nomination as a litmus test among conservatives for where you stand on gun laws.

But with 50 votes and control of the Senate, Democrats have the ability to confirm Dettlebach and a failure to do so would send a stark message to the country that not even the party in favor of gun control measures can muster the votes to act in response to the latest mass shootings that have shaken the country.

The Judiciary Committee must move him out of committee before his nomination can come to the floor for a vote and no timeline has been announced.

Dettelbach's confirmation comes at a time when law enforcement agencies and the nation's gun laws are under scrutiny and so too is the beleaguered agency that has been underfunded, is outdated and has had only one confirmed directorTodd Jones in 2015 — since the position became a presidential appointee in 2006. 

The ATF is mandated, in part, to disrupt gun violence and illegal gun purchases and sales. But its effectiveness has been weakened for the past twenty years by Congress, which advocates say is why the bureau needs a Senate-confirmed director who can operate with more authority than someone filling the role in an acting capacity.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called a Senate-confirmed appointee to the agency “vital.” 

“They advocate to Congress,” Booker said. “They engage in ways that not having a leader really undermines.” The president needs a partner “that can help with strategic initiatives that are really important right now,” Booker added.

The agency has been in decline for years.

For instance, a 2019 report from the gun control group Giffords, run by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D) who was shot in the head at a campaign event, found that ATF had fewer employees in 2017 than it did in 2002. Its annual budget has increased at a far slower rate than other government agencies. 

The agency's challenges began in 2003, when Congress included an amendment authored under then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) in an annual spending bill that prohibited ATF from releasing gun tracing data, which can be a tool to solve gun crimes. 

Furthermore, gun dealers don't have to turn over gun sale information and gun inventory to the government. That same amendment, which has been included every year since, mandates the FBI to destroy every background check that has been approved within 24 hours. It also prohibits ATF from digitizing gun records. Gun license records are stored in boxes in a massive warehouse in Martinsburg, W.Va. The floor recently collapsed under the weight of the paper records.

The National Rifle Association has long worked to weaken the agency and gun control groups say the Tiahrt amendment has made it difficult for ATF to enforce current gun laws. 

“I think that shows how deliberate and intentional the gun lobby has been to try to make ATF ineffective,” T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign, told The Early. 

It's up to Congress to repeal the Tiahrt amendment, which doesn't appear on the table at the moment due to GOP opposition, but gun control advocates said a permanent director would be better position to lobby for changes to this and other constraints on ATF. 

“Having a director in place that can forcefully tell Congress where they are tying their hands — where they're making ATF job impossible — you need a strong permanent and firm director to be able to stand up and advocate for that agency,” Heyne said.

The latest on Senate gun bill discussions

A bipartisan group of senators will continue to work on compromise gun legislation this week even as the Senate is out of Washington for the Memorial Day recess. The talks are wide ranging — red flag laws, background checks, mental health assessments, safe firearm storage and school safety measures. But the talks are limited, too. For instance, there is no discussion of banning assault style weapons. 

Perhaps the group will reach agreement to hold a vote as early as next week. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has been working on gun legislation since the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 and over the weekend he told ABC's “This Week” that the talks are “encouraging.” Biden said this weekend that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a “rational Republican.” But as our colleagues Ashley Parker and Michael Sherer wrote over the weekend, McConnell has spent his career blocking gun legislation.

At the White House

His brother’s (and nephew’s) keeper: James Biden took out his iPhone early one morning in September 2017 and tapped a quick message to his nephew Hunter,” our colleague Matt Viser writes. “It was, as usual, filled with typos. It was also, as usual, filled with exclamation points meant to convey his exuberance.”

  • “Hunter, we are cut from the same cloth,” James Biden wrote. “… You are a fine and yes, a gentle person. Believe it or not, I know you. Sounds corney,but we both deserve to enjoy the moment. Concentrate on the good in our lives and try to step out of all the bullshit you deal with on a minute to minute basis.”
  • “James and Hunter Biden were in the midst of a lucrative deal with Chinese executives at the time, while Joe Biden was out of public service for the first time in nearly a half-century, having left the vice presidency a few months earlier,” per Viser. “Hunter Biden was also wrestling with drug addiction, financial problems and a relationship with his late brother Beau’s widow that had become public. Amid all that, Hunter Biden turned to his uncle, at least as much as to his famous father, for emotional support.”

“James Biden has in many ways always been the protector in the Biden family, the one who made sure the machinery ran while his brother soared; President Biden as recently as late last year referred to him as ‘my brother Jimmy, who fixes everything.’”

  • “He has been there for the bad times, comforting family members in distress, visiting the bedside of loved ones, getting them into rehab when needed. He was by his brother’s side at his first wedding, was at the hospital when Beau died, found a neurosurgeon when Joe had a brain aneurysm.”
  • “He even helped paint Hunter’s law school apartment. When Joe Biden became president, his brother was tasked with redecorating the Oval Office.”
  • “Yet from the start of Joe Biden’s political career, James, who is seven years younger, has also walked up to ethical lines his brother has avoided, leaving a complicated trail of business dealings and angry lawsuits.”

In the agencies

Biden struggles to rebuild the EPA, without the money to do it

‘It’s not a good idea to starve the agency’: “After years of neglect, President Biden promised to reinvigorate the [Environmental Protection Agency] as part of his push to tackle climate change and ease the pollution burden placed on poor and minority communities,” our colleague Dino Grandoni reports. “But the agency’s budgetary woes are preventing the nation’s top pollution regulator from doing its job, in ways large and small.”

  • “The agency’s funding has remained stagnant since his inauguration. Its work is hamstrung by low staffing levels not seen since Ronald Reagan left office.”
  • “The lack of resources and workers has undercut its ability to inspect facilities, measure contamination, punish violators and write new rules to stem pollution and climate change at a time when scientists say the world needs to act faster to stop runaway global warming.”
  • “At the beginning of his term, Biden asked Congress for a big boost to the EPA’s budget, from $9.2 billion to $11.2 billion. But the agency ended up getting only a fifth of that additional $2 billion requested by Biden, an increase that does not keep pace with the rapid rate of inflation. That means the EPA actually has less spending power since Democrats took full control of the executive and legislative branches, even as its responsibilities grow.”

The Data

The demographics of student loan borrowers, visualized: “Soaring college costs, higher enrollment, changes to the federal lending system, labor market demand for credentials and paltry wage growth have all contributed to the $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student debt,” our colleagues Alyssa Fowers and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel report. “About 1 in 5 Americans hold student loans.”

  • “Student debt is most prevalent among Americans aged 25 to 34 … Among the fastest-growing categories of student loan borrowers over the past two decades are Black students and people ages 50 and older, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data.”
  • Washington, D.C. has the highest concentration of student loan borrowers, per our colleagues, “with the average federal student debt per borrower at $55,000.”

The Media

Early reeeads 🐦 📖

Here’s the latest from our colleagues on the Uvalde school shooting:

More reeeads: 

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Thanks for reading. You can also follow us on Twitter: @LACaldwellDC and @theodoricmeyer.

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