Byron Todd Jones, ATF Director
Washington-- In a tense, cliffhanger vote Wednesday, Democrats barely beat back a GOP-led filibuster of Cincinnati-native Byron Todd Jones to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Senate confirmed him to be the agency's first permanent director in seven years.
The narrow victory for Jones came after hours of waiting and amid intense political wrangling, as Democrats held the vote open for more than five hours and scrambled to secure the 60 votes needed to end debate on Jones.
The drama began early in the tally, as the GOP 'no' votes piled up and Jones' supporters gathered around Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the well of the Senate. Their voices were inaudible, but the goal was clear: getting her to switch from no to yes.
The Murkowski confab soon moved off the Senate floor, but about an hour into the roll call, the Alaska Republican reappeared and changed her vote.
Murkowski said she voted no at first because she believed Jones was the subject of an "active investigation," a reference to an inquiry by the office of special counsel, an independent federal investigator, into a workplace retaliation complaint from an assistant U.S. attorney in Jones' Minneapolis office. But that matter is now the subject of mediation.
"During the vote, I was informed by colleagues that the investigation phase has concluded and a mediation process has been initiated to resolve this issue," she said, prompting her decison to vote in favor of giving Jones a yes-or-no vote.
Democrats then held the vote open for another four hours so that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who had been out of town, could race back to Washington and cast the final 'yes' needed to reach 60. Upon final confirmation, which required only a simple majority, the Senate approved Jones Wednesday night by a vote of 53-to-42, with only one Republican--Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois--voting for him.
It was a suspenseful conclusion to a long and bitter confirmation battle for Jones-a Wyoming High School graduate and the U.S. sttorney for Minnesota who has served as the temporary ATF director since 2011.
President Barack Obama asked Jones to take the ATF post permanently after last December's elementary school shooting in Connecticut, which left 20 children and six educators dead. Obama made Jones' nomination part of his larger push to reduce gun violence.
Jones' nomination was contentious from the start, but his path to confirmation seemed to get easier earlier this week when the National Rifle Association said it would remain neutral in the fight.
Jones' win on Wednesday marks the first time the Senate has ever approved a nominee to the agency. Senate confirmation became a requirement for the job in 2006, and since then, lawmakers have stalled or rebuffed every nominee, leaving the agency in the hands of a series of acting directors.
Supporters hailed Jones' approval as a victory for an agency that has been battered by bouts of scandal and tumult. With his confirmation fight over, proponents said, Jones will bring new stability to a bureau charged with enforcing sensitive federal gun laws and leading significant criminal investigations.
"The ship will have a captain," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. As the confirmed director, Jones can set policy and "be around to carry it out," he said.
But Republicans blasted Wednesday's vote as premature and ill-advised. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, led the opposition and highlighted the allegations that Jones cracked down on whistle-blowers as Minnesota's U.S. attorney. The complaint against Jones charged that he suspended the assistant U.S. attorney and gave him a low performance evaluation after he engaged in "protected whistle-blowing" activities, according to the office of special counsel.
Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that the Senate needed to wait until that matter was closed--including the mediation process--before moving ahead with Jones' nomination. And he found plenty of allies in that pitch; all but six Senate Republicans voted against advancing Jones' nomination.
"There's an ongoing investigation," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who was among the 'no' votes on Jones. "For us to make a decision and then have that blow up . . . I'm not saying it will but if it does, that would be a huge mistake."
But Heitkamp, who cast the deciding vote, said it was "way past time" for the Senate to fill the ATF job.
"This position hasn't had a director for seven years," she said, and Jones has the right resume for the post.
"He has built a reputation as someone who has aggressively fought back against gang violence and gun trafficking," she said. "I hope the ATF will be able to do its job, just as the American people deserve."