WASHINGTON – Nothing about Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been easy. The agency has been without a permanent head for seven years because of pressure from the National Rifle Association on lawmakers to keep the agency leaderless. President Barack Obama nominated Jones to run the agency, where Jones is currently the acting director, six months ago, but the nomination languished after Republicans raised questions both about the agency and Jones’s work.
Then there was the unusual spectacle on the Senate floor Wednesday: a vote to end debate on Jones that’s lasted nearly two hours at the time of writing and involved the televised (albeit without sound) arm twisting of a Republican U.S. Senator by Democrats.
As things stand at 3:15 p.m. Minnesota time, there are 59 of the required 60 votes to overcome Republican objections to ending debate on Jones. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, was in her home state during the vote and is returning to the Capitol where she will presumably cast the 60th vote that can begin the eight hour period of debate on the substance of Jones’s nomination. The final vote on Jones will require a simple majority, which Democrats are confident they have.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it got done,” said DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar to a gaggle of reporters standing in front of the door to the Senate chamber. Klobuchar was referring to the appeals Democrats made to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., who switched her vote to support ending the debate. Reporters viewing the Senate floor from the galleries above and on television reported that Murkowski was surrounded by members of both parties hoping to sway her vote.
In addition to Murkowski, fellow Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona joined all 53 Democrats present in the Senate to vote to end debate.
The Jones nomination has been tied up in the messy politics of gun control though the waters appeared to have parted for him slightly over the past two days after a prominent group that represents gun manufacturers decided to support Jones while the powerful National Rifle Association unexpectedly decided to stay neutral rather oppose Jones.
Wednesday’s vote also made clear the precariousness of an agreement several weeks between a faction of Senate Republicans and Democrats to stop blocking executive branch nominees via the 60 vote filibuster. That deal has allowed a number of high-profile Obama Administration nominees to get Senate approval although Jones had not been included among that group.
The Senate has also been able to forge bipartisan agreements on a number of issues lately, including on immigration and farm policy and progress is being made on a spending deal to undo the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
Klobuchar said with that progress in mind, had Murkowski voted no and blocked Jones just days before a five week recess was set to begin, the compromise that has kept the Senate functional would likely have broken down in September when a number of major fiscal issues are likely to come up.
“The last thing we want to do is leave with some radioactive blow up,” said Klobuchar.