WASHINGTON – B. Todd Jones is on the cusp of becoming the first Senate-confirmed director of the ATF on Thursday, after a fierce lobbying effort successfully swayed a single Republican lawmaker to change her vote.
Democrats had expected a close result, but nonetheless were confident they had the votes to ultimately end a Republican filibuster of Jones’ nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they decided to bring it to the Senate floor this week.
But a dramatic scene began to play out when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the Republicans that Democrats had expected to break from the minority party, cast an initial no vote. After five other Republicans voted yes and it was clear Murkowski’s would be the decisive vote, the Alaska senator was surrounded in the well of the Senate chamber by senators from both parties, including members of the leadership and the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who could be seen pleading their cases.
At one point Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the Republicans who had voted to advance Jones’ nomination, pulled Murkowski off of the Senate floor to talk in private.
“I was concerned that she was being pummeled by both sides and thought she might need a little break,” Collins later told reporters, joking that they just chatted about a recent dinner Murkowski had hosted at her home.
After nearly an hour, Murkowski returned to the Senate floor and announced she would instead vote yes.
In an unusual step that speaks to the narrow result, Senate leaders held open the vote so that a Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, could return to the Capitol to cast the clinching vote.
President Obama nominated Jones to be the permanent director in January, as he rolled out a series of other executive actions to address gun violence that he planned to make in response to the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Jones has been the agency’s acting director since 2011, when the previous director was dismissed amid fallout from the Operation Fast and Furious gun-tracking controversy.
His status remained in doubt for much of the year as Republicans moved to block his and a number of other executive appointments. The National Rifle Assn. has also typically mounted opposition to confirming ATF leadership.
But the NRA’s late decision to remain neutral on Jones’ confirmation, and a separate agreement between Senate Democrats and Republicans to process other stalled nominations, led Democrats to believe they could round up the needed 60 votes to break a GOP filibuster.
Republicans continued to express concern about ongoing investigations related to Jones’ tenure as U.S. attorney in Minnesota. Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that confirming him amid questions over his handling of whistle-blower complaints would send “a chilling message to all employees” of the ATF.
“We should not be conducting this vote until this matter is resolved,” he said.
Grassley would later plead his case to Murkowski directly as it seemed she was wavering. She could be heard telling Democratic colleagues that she was concerned about the investigation Grassley cited.
At one point Sen. John McCain, who had helped broker the recent agreement that ended a showdown between the parties over threatened rule changes on nominations, was pulled into the scrum by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to talk to Murkowski. Other senators later said concern about a return to the brinkmanship over filibuster rules was part of the case made to Murkowski.
“We’ve been able to march through some really difficult nominations like NLRB and EPA, and the last thing we want right now as we head into the fall - where I still think there is a good chance we could get some kind of bipartisan agreement on the budget and on the debt – … is to leave with some radioactive blowup,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a lead supporter of Jones’ nomination.
Another major factor, Klobuchar said, was the fact that since a 2006 law passed that required Senate approval of ATF directors, no nominee has been confirmed.
“At some point why would you have a confirmable position when under both George Bush and Barack Obama the Senate has refused to confirm anyone?” she said.
[Updated, 3 p.m. July 31: In a statement released by her office, Murkowski explained that her initial no vote was “based on my understanding that the nominee was the subject of an investigation, because I believe that it is common sense not to confirm someone who is the subject of an active investigation.”
During the vote, Murkowski added, colleagues told her “that the investigation phase has concluded and a mediation process has been initiated to resolve this issue.” Based on that information, she changed her vote so that Jones’ nomination could proceed to a final up-or-down vote. At that point, she said she would vote against Jones.]
Murkowski has in recent years become a key swing vote in the Senate, often breaking with Republicans to support Democratic initiatives. First appointed to the Senate in 2002 after her father resigned his seat to become governor, Murkowski won a second full term in 2010 after first losing in a Republican primary to a tea party-backed challenger. She later waged a successful write-in campaign to win in the general election.
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