To secure his nomination, Democrats were forced to scramble to find enough votes to prevent a filibuster.
WASHINGTON – After a five-hour drama, the U.S. Senate confirmed Minnesota U.S. attorney B. Todd Jones to be the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Wednesday, giving the agency its first permanent head since 2006.
Jones was confirmed 53-42, but not before Senate Democrats were forced into a last-minute scramble for votes to head off a Republican filibuster of his nomination.
To secure the 60 votes necessary to close debate, Democrats lobbied Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to switch her vote. Still short, they delayed for hours while North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who has been sick all week, flew to the capital to cast the decisive cloture vote.
It was a tension-filled day in what has been a contentious confirmation process for Jones, who faced questions about his management style and allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers.
Jones, 56, of St. Paul, will take the helm of a law enforcement agency at the center of an increasingly volatile gun-control debate in Congress.
Jones has led the bureau as acting director since 2011, when he was tapped to help it bounce back after the infamously botched “Fast and Furious” gun-smuggling operation, which led to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
“Todd Jones is a tough and tested law-enforcement professional with decades of experience, and his confirmation to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is both welcome and long overdue,” President Obama said in a statement.
Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis, said Jones would issue a statement Thursday. She said Jones “is appreciative of the vote.”
Obama nominated Jones as the permanent director in January, just weeks after a massacre of children at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school intensified the debate over firearms violence in the nation.
An ex-Marine Corps infantryman, Jones has served as Minnesota’s U.S. attorney during the Obama and Clinton administrations.
Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, were staunch supporters of Jones’ confirmation throughout his ordeal, but Klobuchar proved a key player in brokering the vote switch that made confirmation possible.
During the cloture process, Klobuchar was among Democratic senators who swarmed Murkowski on the floor, persuading her to flip her vote.
The episode was further evidence of cracks in the tenuous compromise that Democrats and Republicans reached to preserve the filibuster for Obama appointees.
“For nearly seven years, Senate Republicans had refused to confirm an ATF director — not because they thought the nominees weren’t qualified, but because they put politics ahead of the agency’s law enforcement mission,” Obama said in a statement. “I applaud Senator Reid, Senator Leahy, Senator Klobuchar, and the bipartisan group of senators who broke through that gridlock to give Todd Jones the up or down vote he deserved.”
With Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., threatening to rewrite filibuster rules, Republicans relented last week, allowing confirmation of several Obama appointees. But Jones was not part of the pact.
Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Jones’ nomination encountered stiff resistance from Republicans from the start.
Law enforcement and gun control groups backed Jones’ nomination, but the specter of opposition by the gun lobby held up the process until this week, when the National Rifle Association announced that it was neutral on Jones’ confirmation.