Senate approves Jones as permanent ATF director

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After the intense lobbying of one senator and an hourslong wait for another to fly in from North Dakota, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to confirm B. Todd Jones as permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, fulfilling a major priority for President Obama in his response to the Connecticut school shootings.

The 53-42 vote will give the ATF its first permanent director since the position became Senate-confirmable in 2006. Mr. Jones has served as acting head of the agency since 2011, taking over from acting Director Kenneth Melson, who was reassigned in the wake of the criticism of the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious gun-running operation along the Mexican border.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the leading opponent of Mr. Jones‘ confirmation, was upset the Senate proceeded with a vote even though the office of special counsel had been investigating two cases involving government whistleblowers when Mr. Jones was Minnesota’s chief federal prosecutor.

One case has been closed, the Iowa Republican said, because of a technical review of the complaint document, and the other has been moved to mediation.

Mr. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the SenateJudiciary Committee, said he didn’t get the answers he was looking for from Mr. Jones at the nominee’s confirmation hearing. Mr. Jones said he hadn’t seen the complaint and so he couldn’t offer comment.

“In too many instances, Mr. Jones was unable or unwilling to provide an adequate response,” Mr. Grassley said in floor remarks Wednesday. “And, unfortunately, I have lingering concerns about his candor in his testimony before the committee.”

Mr. Grassley said treatment of whistleblowers is relevant for the post because former ATF leadership retaliated against whistleblowers who alerted authorities about Fast and Furious, and that a U.S. attorney in Arizona had to resign because of his “retaliatory conduct.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, claimed Wednesday that the office of special counsel is no longer investigating the case after the complainant voluntarily agreed to mediate his concerns.

The outcome was in peril for some time Wednesday afternoon, as senators huddled at length on the chamber floor trying to lobby Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, to vote for a procedural hurdle needing 60 “ayes” to end debate and clear the way for final passage.

Mrs. Murkowski eventually flipped her vote from “no” to “yes,” citing information she received from colleagues that the investigation phase had concluded, as Mrs. Klobuchar indicated. Five other Republicans voted to advance the nomination: Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan M. Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and John McCain of Arizona.

But that gave Democrats only 59 of the votes they needed. The vote was held open for approximately five hours to allow Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, to fly in and cast the 60th vote. Mrs. Heitkamp had drawn the ire of gun-control advocates earlier this year for being one of a handful of Democrats to vote against a measure to expand gun-purchase background checks to sales online and at gun shows.

While Mr. Jones‘ confirmation wasn’t part of a recent deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republicans in order to advance a handful of Mr. Obama’s nominees and avoid a messy rules fight, he would have been the first high-profile nominee the Senate has blocked since the agreement was struck last month.

Two weeks ago, the cloture vote, or vote to end debate, for Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez also passed on the bare minimum 60-40 vote.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was disappointed in the Senate vote earlier in the year, but applauded the vote Wednesday.

“As acting director, Todd Jones has shown strong leadership at the ATF and [he] played a major role in investigating some of our nation’s worst tragedies,” Mr. Leahy said. “He is the right person for this important job.”

The National Rifle Association, which has opposed Mr. Obama’s gun control agenda since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December, notably stayed neutral on Mr. Jones‘ nomination. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry, supported him.

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