Senate confirms B. Todd Jones as ATF director after a long delay

REUTERS/Jason Reed
B. Todd Jones, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is shown during a speech by the president at the White House earlier this year.

WASHINGTON — Senators had hoped to confirm Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives by mid-afternoon Wednesday.

But even after the seven months it took to get Jones’ nomination to the floor, it took a little longer to finally seal the deal.

Senators needed more than an hour to convince Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to change her mind and vote to end a filibuster on Jones’ nomination Had she not relented, Republicans would have successfully blocked Jones from moving forward, at least for now. 

But even then, Democrats still had only 59 of the 60 votes they needed, so they kept the roll call vote open for more than five hours so North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — home sick — could fly to Washington to cast her vote.

When she did, with the procedural vote out of the way, lawmakers voted 53-42 to make Jones the first full-time ATF director to be confirmed by the Senate since lawmakers got that power in 2007.

“There were a lot of discussions on the floor, as you know sometimes that gets done ahead of time,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of Jones’ biggest Senate advocates, said after the initial vote. “This time it was there for the world to see.”

Six Republicans voted to end debate on Jones days after pro-gun rights interest groups announced their neutrality on his nomination. The National Rifle Association, which has traditionally opposed ATF nominees, said this week that it wouldn’t take a position against Jones despite opposing — successfully — many of the gun violence measures pushed by Democrats.

“If there was ever a test of whether the Senate could move forward in a bipartisan way, this afternoon was it,” Klobuchar said.

Jones has lead ATF on an interim basis since 2011, and President Obama nominated him to lead the bureau full-time in January, as part of a legislative and administrative response to the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

His nomination had always faced tough political headwinds. Several high-profile Republicans had opposed Jones’ nomination for a litany of reasons, from his handling of so-called ATF scandals to ongoing internal affairs investigations at the Justice Department. Every Senate Judiciary Committee Republican opposed Jones when the panel sent his nomination to the floor, which indicated Democrats would have some difficulties attracting the Republican support needed to break a filibuster.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was especially vocal in his opposition, hitting Jones for allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers and what Grassley considered to be a record of ineffectiveness as U.S. Attorney, some of which was based on complaints from a former Minneapolis FBI agent who worked with Jones. As he did when the Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Jones in June, Grassley urged senators to hold off on confirming Jones until the matter is settled.

But Democrats said those concerns are overblown. Jones eventually won support from high-profile Minnesota law enforcement groups and individuals, including Republican appointees like Tom Heffelfinger, who was Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney during both Bush presidencies.

“Managing a law enforcement agency is never easy, you’re going to have issues come up literally every day, disagreements with prosecutors and other things,” Klobuchar said. “I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that Todd Jones was U.S. Attorney under Bill Clinton, he was U.S. Attorney under Barack Obama, he has the support of Tom Heffelfinger. … Everyone involved in this understands there’s going to be disagreements, but the point is that he’s been doing a good job as acting director of ATF. He deserves to be the permanent head.”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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