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‘Nuclear option’ in Senate could determine B. Todd Jones’ nomination

WASHINGTON — The Judiciary Committee’s party-line vote indicates Republicans could filibuster his nomination — unless Democrats change Senate rules. 

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones’ nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the floor on Thursday afternoon, more than six months after President Obama asked the Senate to confirm him as the full-time head of the department.

The Judiciary Committee backed Jones on a 10-8 vote, along party lines, which was expected given the myriad of Republican objections to Jones’s nomination (Democrats and other supporters say the concerns are unwarranted). Minnesota’s two senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, who was Jones’s biggest booster during a nomination hearing in June, voted to send his nomination to the floor for a full vote.

The Senate could confirm Jones if one of two things happen:

First, Republicans could drop their objections to Jones and not filibuster a nomination vote. This seems unlikely, given their long-standing objections to his nomination. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has long opposed moving forward with Jones’s nomination while the Justice Department conducts an internal affairs investigation into his work as U.S. attorney, and he said so again during the committee’s hearing on Thursday.

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But while Grassley has been Jones’ most vocal opponent, others have begun to emerge. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions took to the Senate floor Thursday to oppose Jones based on criticism from a former Minnesota FBI agent who briefly worked with Jones.

Republicans have a list of other concerns about Jones, especially his record prosecuting violent crime, his role in ATF’s failed Fast and Furious operation (Obama brought him in to lead ATF on an interim basis after the operation), and whether he had anything to do with an alleged legal quid pro quo between the city of St. Paul and the federal government. So while not certain, it seems more likely than not that Republicans would filibuster his confirmation if it came up for a vote, effectively blocking him from leading ATF full-time.

But filibuster rules might change. Senate leadership spent much of Thursday sparring over a Democratic threat to change Senate rules and end filibusters on executive branch nominees, which would allow the Senate to confirm partisan nominations (like Jones’s is shaping up to be) as long as the president’s party holds a simple majority in the chamber.

Under current rules, the minority party in the Senate can filibuster executive branch nominees and force a cloture vote (and its 60-vote requirement) on their confirmation, which has held up all except bipartisan nominations from going forward. But Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday he has the votes to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and end filibusters on those nominees.

Reid says he as enough support in his conference to change the rules (Republicans clearly oppose the plan), and a vote to do so could come as early as next week. If that happens, it would give Democrats the chance to confirm Jones, and other nominees opposed by Republicans, without having to overcome a filibuster.

Either way, if the Senate signs off on Jones, it would be historic: The Senate has never confirmed a full-time ATF head since it got the power to do so in 2006.

Devin Henry can be reached at