The Senate Judiciary Committee, voting strictly along party lines, on Thursday approved President Obama's pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — setting up what could be a major Senate floor fight with Republicans.
The committee, in a 10-8 vote, ended more than six months of debate over the nomination of U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, including intense and often critical discussion of his management style as the chief federal prosecutor in Minnesota.
Mr. Jones has served as ATF's acting director for two years and also has kept his job as U.S. attorney. President Obama listed confirming Mr. Jones as a key point in his package of gun control measures unveiled in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.
Facing a potential Republican filibuster when the matter goes to the full Senate, Democrats would have to secure at least six Republican votes to install Mr. Jones as the permanent head of the ATF.
Leading the Republican opposition against the Jones nomination was the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Mr. Grassley said he was against proceeding on the nomination because of an investigation of Mr. Jones by the office of special counsel. When a nominee is the subject of an open investigation, he said the committee generally does not move forward until it is resolved.
"However, today, it appears the majority is intent on reporting out the nomination, even though the issues are not resolved and despite the concerns we have expressed," he said. "So it seems, at least with this nomination, we are proceeding in a manner that indicates a predetermined outcome and schedule rather than following the normal committee process."
Mr. Grassley said the office of special counsel is investigating two matters involving the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota — one alleging reprisal for whistleblowing and other protected activity, and another alleging gross mismanagement and abuses of authority. He called the allegations "very troubling."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has argued that the office's complaint "is not substantial or even substantially about Todd Jones." He said it provided no reason to oppose the confirmation.
"We are further examining the matter, but I believe him qualified and at this time know of no good reason the Senate should not confirm his nomination," Mr. Leahy said.
The full Senate has not confirmed a permanent ATF director since it was given the power to do so in 2006. Mr. Jones has headed the agency since 2011, taking over from Kenneth Melson, who also was an acting director. Mr. Melson was reassigned in the wake of the criticism of the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation along the Mexican border.
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