Washington Updates: Biden’s A.T.F. Nominee Faces Senate Panel

Gun Rights
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David Chipman, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, announced his support for a proposed ban on AR-15-style rifles during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.Al Drago for The New York Times

David Chipman, President Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, faced withering criticism during his confirmation hearing Wednesday from Republican senators over his history of scathing comments about gun ownership.

Mr. Chipman, a two-decade veteran of the A.T.F. who has served as an adviser to gun control groups, was chosen in part because of his willingness to bluntly confront an industry that has handcuffed the federal agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s gun laws.

But his comments — including a 2020 interview where he jokingly likened the frenzied buying of guns during the coronavirus pandemic to a zombie apocalypse — were the source of repeated questions by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to a nominee they view as a serious threat.

“Many see putting a committed gun control proponent, like David Chipman, in charge of A.T.F. is like putting a tobacco executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, or antifa in charge of the Portland police department,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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As the hearing got underway, news alerts of a shooting in San Jose that killed multiple people began pinging on lawmakers’ phones. “It is not lost on me that there is another mass shooting,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota.

The National Rifle Association has mounted a coordinated campaign to sink Mr. Chipman’s nomination, citing his promises to regulate automatic weapons and his support of universal background checks.

The N.R.A. has effectively exercised veto power over the appointment of stable permanent leadership at the bureau, blocking several would-be A.T.F. directors, including a conservative police union official tapped for the post by former President Donald J. Trump.

The gun lobby had led a decades-long campaign to hobble the A.T.F., by fighting funding increases and scuttling efforts to modernize its paper-based system of tracking firearms.

Republicans said Mr. Chipman’s penchant for provocation made him an unacceptable choice, hoping to scuttle his nomination just as a history of inflammatory posts on Twitter doomed the nomination of Neera Tanden, Mr. Biden’s first choice to run his budget office.

Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, grilled Mr. Chipman for saying in jest in an interview last year that some first-time gun buyers were preparing “for end times scenarios and zombie apocalypses.”

Mr. Chipman, who appeared to try to avoid getting into a back-and-forth with Republicans, responded that those remarks were “self-deprecating.” He also deflected questions about his progressive policy advocacy by saying he viewed himself as “a cop.”

A few minutes later, after Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, criticized him for calling for restrictions on AR-15-style rifles, Mr. Chipman thanked the senator for “offering me a Dr. Pepper” during a private meeting the day before.

Mr. Biden’s selection of Mr. Chipman came after an intense lobbying campaign by gun safety organizations, led by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. In recent years, Mr. Chipman has worked with groups run by Ms. Giffords and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who also pressed for his selection.

The White House was initially reluctant to select a nominee who would provoke such intense opposition, but Mr. Biden decided he needed to take a chance after the mass killings in Atlanta and Boulder earlier this year, White House officials said.

White House officials believe that Mr. Chipman has just enough votes — 50 to 52 in their estimate — to overcome near-unanimous opposition by Republicans.

Two critical Democratic swing votes, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have told Democratic leaders they are likely to support his nomination, provided the hearings go well. Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, have not ruled out supporting him.

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The Biden administration announced that it has called on intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in China as a way to prevent future pandemics.Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies on Wednesday to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, indicating publicly that his administration takes seriously the possibility that the virus was accidentally leaked from a lab, as well as the prevailing theory that it was transmitted by an animal to humans.

In a statement, Mr. Biden made it clear that the intelligence agencies had not reached consensus on how the virus, which sparked a pandemic and has killed almost 600,000 people in the United States, originated. But he directed them to “redouble their efforts” and report back to him in 90 days.

Mr. Biden’s statement, his most public and expansive yet on the uncertainty around how the virus spread to humans, came as top health officials renewed their appeals this week for a more rigorous investigation and the World Health Organization faced mounting criticism for an earlier report dismissing the possibility that it had accidentally escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Just in the past several days, the White House had downplayed the need for an investigation led by the United States and insisted that the W.H.O. was the proper place for an international inquiry. Mr. Biden’s statement on Wednesday was an abrupt shift, though officials declined to be specific about what had changed.

“What has changed is, he wants to give another 90 days to dig a little deeper, to double down — the I.C. to double down their efforts,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, said referring to the intelligence community. “The W.H.O. doing their thing and the I.C., doing what they’re doing currently is not mutually exclusive.”

But Mr. Biden’s comments suggested that his own government’s review of the evidence made it that much more urgent for American investigators to take the lead. In his statement, Mr. Biden said that he had asked his national security adviser in March to task intelligence officials with a report on their latest analysis of the virus’s origins, which he said he received earlier this month before asking for “additional follow-up.” He said the intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but not definitively answered the question.

“Here is their current position: ‘while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,’” Mr. Biden said.

The calls from Mr. Biden and other top American health officials were the latest in a series of White House demands in recent months that any such inquiry be free from Chinese interference. But they drew additional attention as some scientists have expressed a new openness to the idea of a lab accident and the W.H.O. grappled with how to respond.

A joint W.H.O.-China inquiry whose findings were released in March dismissed as “extremely unlikely” the possibility that the virus had emerged accidentally from a laboratory.

Suggestions that the coronavirus may have been accidentally carried out of a laboratory in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan were largely drowned out last year by scientists’ accounts of its likely path from an animal host to humans in a natural setting.

Many scientists, including those who lead American health agencies, believe that a so-called spillover event remains the most plausible explanation for the pandemic. But the joint inquiry by the W.H.O. and China did not settle the matter: The Chinese government repeatedly tried to bend the investigation to its advantage, and Chinese scientists supplied all the research data used in the final report.

Dr. Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, criticized the report while testifying to Senate lawmakers Wednesday on the agency’s budget.

“It is most likely that this is a virus that arose naturally. But we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident. That’s why we’ve advocated very strongly that W.H.O. needs to go back and try again after the first phase of their investigation really satisfied nobody,” Dr. Collins said. “And this time we need a really expert driven, no-holds-barred collection of information, which is how we’re mostly really going to find out what happened.”

Echoing his past comments, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, agreed the virus was “most likely” naturally occurring. “But no one knows that 100 percent for sure,” he said at the same hearing. “And since there’s a lot of concern, a lot of speculation, and since no one absolutely knows that, I believe we do need the kind of investigation where there’s open transparency.”

In early March, a small group of scientists calling themselves the Paris group released an open letter calling for an inquiry separate from the team of independent experts sent to China as part of the W.H.O. investigation.

This month, a group of 18 scientists said in a letter published in the journal Science that there was not enough evidence to decide whether a natural origin or an accidental laboratory leak caused the Covid-19 pandemic.

After the findings of the joint inquiry by China and the W.H.O. were released in March, the director of the W.H.O., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, conceded that the lab leak theory required further study, saying he did not believe that “this assessment was extensive enough.”

And countries including Australia, Germany and Japan have continued at this week’s W.H.O. meeting to call for firmer steps toward a more comprehensive investigation.

Senator John Warner in 2007. The peak of his power in the Senate began in 1999, when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the genteel former Navy secretary who shed the image of a dilettante to become a leading Republican voice on military policy during 30 years in the Senate, died on Tuesday night. He was 94.

He died at his home of heart failure, according to a former staff member.

Mr. Warner may have for a time been best known nationally as the dashing sixth husband of the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Her celebrity was a draw on the campaign trail during his difficult first race for the Senate in 1978, an election he won narrowly to start his political career. The couple divorced in 1982.

In the latter stages of his congressional service, Mr. Warner was also recognized as a protector of the Senate’s traditions and was credited with trying to forge bipartisan consensus on knotty issues such as the Iraq war, judicial nominations and treatment of terror suspects.

In retrospect, the senatorial Mr. Warner — with his shock of white hair, immaculate attire and unflagging politeness — represented a vanishing breed in his party, and particularly in his home state, which has become increasingly polarized since his retirement in 2009.

He was a crossover candidate in a state where politicians in both parties had long gravitated to the center, offsetting the loss of conservative voters over the years with crossover support from Democrats and independents.

In a statement on Wednesday, President Biden reflected on his time serving with Mr. Warner in the Senate.

“I always knew that John’s decisions were guided by his values — even when we disagreed on the policy outcomes,” the president said. “When told that if he voted in a way that was not in line with his party’s position — as he did numerous times on issues of rational gun policy, women’s rights and judicial nominees — that ‘people would say,’ his favorite rejoinder was, ‘Let ’em say it.’”

“Indeed,” Mr. Biden added, “that was his response when, in one of the great honors of my career, he crossed party lines to support me in the 2020 election.”

Mr. Warner served in the Navy briefly at the end of World War II, then joined the Marines to fight in the Korean War, where he served as a ground aircraft maintenance officer, eventually reaching the rank of captain in the reserves.

“I’m devastated to hear of the passing of my dear friend John Warner,” wrote Senator Mark Warner of Virginia on Twitter early Wednesday. “To me, he was the gold standard in Virginia. I will forever be grateful for his friendship and mentorship. I’ll miss you, John.”

The younger Mr. Warner is a Democrat, and is not related to the elder Mr. Warner.

But in a parting act of bipartisan comity, the elder Mr. Warner endorsed him when he retired from the Senate after the 2008 election.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary for the White House, spoke to reporters in January.
Al Drago for The New York Times

Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary for the White House, will hold a televised briefing for the first time on Wednesday, an appearance that is seen both internally and externally as an audition for the press secretary job.

Jen Psaki, the current White House press secretary, recently said that she intended to leave the post after about a year. A former State Department spokeswoman, Ms. Psaki came to the job more battle-tested — and more familiar to the Washington press corps — than Ms. Jean-Pierre, whose work has been steeped in grass roots activism, working on Democratic campaigns and as chief public affairs officer at the liberal group MoveOn.

She is not the heir apparent to replace Ms. Psaki — other names put forth in the internal parlor game include Symone Sanders, the vice president’s press secretary, and Ned Price, the State Department spokesman — but Ms. Jean-Pierre has had frequent contact with the White House press corps in recent months.

To get better acclimated to a White House where top officials tend to obsess over discipline in messaging, Ms. Jean-Pierre, 46, has delivered occasional press briefings aboard Air Force One, a lower-stakes way to brief than on live television.

She is almost always in the room when Ms. Psaki delivers briefings, which has allowed her to familiarize herself with reporters. And the two are friendly: Before the door to the briefing room opens, they often do a dance to shake off their nerves, Ms. Psaki said in an interview with The Times in January.

Ms. Jean-Pierre has made missteps along the way. Earlier this month, the White House rushed to publish an edited transcript when Ms. Jean-Pierre mistakenly told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration supported Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO. But at other times, she has impressed members of Mr. Biden’s inner circle, including when she kept a cool head speaking to reporters minutes after the president tripped several times while boarding his plane.

“It’s very windy,” she told reporters. “I almost fell coming up the steps myself.”

On Wednesday, her colleagues, including Ms. Psaki, said Ms. Jean-Pierre’s turn at the podium was a history-making moment. Ms. Jean-Pierre will be the first openly gay spokeswoman and the first Black woman in decades to address journalists on behalf of the president in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. (Judy Smith, a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, was the first Black spokeswoman to do so in 1991.)

In the past, Ms. Jean-Pierre has spoken about her belief that her identity as a woman of color and daughter of Haitian immigrants cut a sharp contrast to some of the divisive policies and rhetoric that proliferated under Mr. Biden’s predecessor.

“I am everything that Donald Trump hates,” she said in a video she filmed for MoveOn. “I’m a Black woman, I’m gay, I am a mom. Both my parents were born in Haiti.”

Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, speaks with Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, on Capitol Hill in March.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, was hurrying to a vote through the Capitol’s cavernous underground tunnel system on a recent Thursday when his phone rang. It was Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, calling for a quick briefing before an infrastructure meeting he had scheduled with a group of Republican senators.

Mr. Coons brushed off the reporters trailing him, propped his computer tablet against a railing next to the Senate subway track, and began typing away, taking notes, as he lowered his voice to share the skinny on the Republicans.

“These are Republican senators he doesn’t know,” Mr. Coons said of Mr. Buttigieg after the two hung up. “So it’s just sort of tactical advice about specific members. What are their interests? What’s the background? Do you think there’s room for progress?”

Before the end of the day Mr. Coons’s phone would ring several more times, with various White House officials on the other end — seeking counsel, scuttlebutt and insight that President Biden needed to navigate his agenda through the Senate.

To trail Mr. Coons on Capitol Hill is to witness how he operates as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the Biden administration in Congress, a kind of consigliere trusted by both the president and the senators — many of them Republicans — whom Mr. Biden needs to succeed.

It is a far less prestigious job than the one that Mr. Coons — who interned for Mr. Biden three decades ago, became his mentee on the New Castle County Council, campaigned for him in Iowa and now holds the seat that once belonged to him — initially sought in the Biden administration, where he had hoped to serve as secretary of state. But it can demand the same kind of shuttle diplomacy and high-stakes negotiation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, right, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Pool photo by Menahem Kahana

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel took a moment on Tuesday to thank the Biden administration for its support during his country’s 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza — and then abruptly changed the subject, and his tone.

“We discussed many regional issues, but none is greater than Iran,” Mr. Netanyahu said, standing with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken after their meeting in Jerusalem. He pointedly added that he hoped the United States would not rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, “because we believe that that deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy.”

The Israeli leader’s remarks lent a sour note to his welcome of Mr. Blinken. And it undoubtedly echoed in Vienna, where a fifth round of negotiations aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, a top priority of President Biden’s, opened on Tuesday.

As Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks made clear, the Gaza conflict appears to have earned Mr. Biden good will with the Israeli leader, and his public. But the prospect of a U.S. return to the nuclear deal threatens to generate new strains between Washington and Jerusalem on a subject that poisoned relations between President Barack Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.

“The big drama looms, and that is the Iran nuclear deal,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“I think both Biden and Netanyahu realize that whatever discomfort both sides may have felt throughout this current conflict, it is small fries compared to the political friction that is looming,” Mr. Schanzer added.

Compounding the trouble is the conflict in Gaza, which has created anger in Israel and among Republicans in Congress over Iran’s ties to Palestinian militants. Most analysts say Iran played no active role in this month’s rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, even though Tehran openly cheered them on.

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Executives of major banks testified to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs with an emphasis on financial instability and inequality during the coronavirus pandemic.Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The chief executives of the six biggest American lenders testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, the first time the committee has summoned all the top bankers since the financial crisis of 2008. (They will also appear at the House Committee on Financial Services on Thursday, for the first time since 2019.)

At the Senate hearing, Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and the committee’s chairman, pressed the bank chiefs on a range of subjects, sending them a list of questions on topics including the riskiness of their assets, the diversity of their work forces, actions on climate change, pledges on racial equity and more. It made for a disjointed hearing as senators veered from issue to issue, trying to catch the chief executives off guard or unprepared.

Their prepared testimonies address the committee’s questions in varying depth and detail, while all make the case that their institutions are healthier, safer and more law-abiding since 2008.

  • Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase turned in a nine-page paper urging business, government and society to address inequities and “unleash the extraordinary vibrancy of the American economy.”

  • Jane Fraser of Citigroup prepared 11 pages (and a three-page addendum with data and tables) that note her bank’s approach to cryptocurrencies, saying that it is “focusing resources and efforts to understand changes in the digital asset space.”

  • James Gorman of Morgan Stanley assembled a 20-page report with few frills that includes a short introduction and responses to each question in order.

  • Charles Scharf of Wells Fargo and David Solomon of Goldman Sachs each submitted 15 pages heavy on environmental, social and governance issues.

  • Brian Moynihan of Bank of America had the most to say, with 32 pages that devote a lot of space to the bank’s “responsible growth” principles. “We embrace our dual responsibility to drive both profits and purpose,” he wrote.

President Biden met with Republican senators, including Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, center, and Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo, right, this month  at the White House on infrastructure proposals.
T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

With bipartisan negotiations faltering, President Biden and Senate Democrats are facing difficult decisions about how to salvage their hopes of enacting a major new infrastructure package this year, and waning time to decide whether to continue pursuing compromise with Republicans or try to act on their own.

Senate Republicans who have been negotiating with White House officials said on Tuesday that they would produce a counterproposal to Mr. Biden’s latest $1.7 trillion offer, promising a plan by Thursday that could amount to $1 trillion in public works spending over eight years. But it is unclear whether the two sides can reach common ground, and a group of centrist senators in both parties were quietly discussing a backup option should the talks stall.

Several Democrats are eager for party leaders to abandon the effort to win over Republicans and instead try to use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to muscle through Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic plan for both a sweeping infrastructure investment and an expansion of child care, education and work force support with a simple majority.

But that option, too, faces obstacles amid opposition from moderate Democrats who have pushed Mr. Biden and their leaders to find an accord with Republicans — or at least try to — before resorting to the same approach Democrats used to pass the stimulus relief bill in March without any Republican votes.

“There’s no magic date and there’s no magic time,” Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key Democratic vote, said on Tuesday. “We have to find something reasonable, and I’m always looking for that moderate, reasonable middle, if you can.”

The president has set Memorial Day as a soft deadline to gauge whether the talks have a chance of producing a deal. The thorniest issues remain, including how to define infrastructure and how to pay for the legislation.

A new plan would allow offshore wind farms in an area off the coast of Morro Bay, Calif.
Drew Kelly for The New York Times

The notion of wind farms churning in the Pacific Ocean, creating clean energy to power homes and businesses, has long been dismissed because of logistical challenges posed by a deep ocean floor and political opposition from the military, which prefers no obstacles for its Navy ships.

But changing technology and a president determined to rapidly expand wind energy have dramatically shifted the prospects for wind farms in the Pacific. On Tuesday, the Navy abandoned its prior opposition and joined the Interior Department to give its blessing to two areas off the California coast that the government said can be developed for wind turbines.

The plan allows commercial offshore wind farms in a 399-square-mile area in Morro Bay along central California, and another area off the coast of Humboldt in Northern California.

The announcement came weeks after the Biden administration approved the nation’s first ever commercial-scale offshore wind farm, to be built off the coast of Massachusetts. About a dozen other offshore wind projects along the East Coast are now under federal review.

The administration estimates that wind turbines in Morro Bay and near Humboldt could together eventually generate enough electricity to power 1.6 million homes.

If those numbers are realized, it could make the California coast one of the largest generators of wind power in the world. The new coastal Massachusetts wind farm is expected to have up to 84 giant wind turbines. By comparison, Mr. Newsom estimated that the California sites could hold more than 300 turbines.

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