Sen. Murkowski’s switch clears way for new ATF boss

Trevor Graff

A pivotal switch by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday cleared the way for confirmation of the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

By a 53-42 vote, the Senate confirmed the appointment of B. Todd Jones to head the ATF. That vote followed on the heels of a 60-40 vote that staved off a filibuster and ended the last roadblock to put Jones atop the agency that represents the federal face of gun control.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine joined Senate Democrats to lobby Murkowski for more than an hour before she decided to cast her “yes” vote to kill the threat of a filibuster.

Murkowski initially voted against ending debate. She cited an ongoing investigation by the Office of Special Counsel into allegations that Jones took retaliatory measures against a whistleblower in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Murkowski said she wanted the investigation wrapped up before moving forward on Jones’ confirmation.

“During the vote, I was informed by colleagues that the investigation phase has concluded and a mediation process has been initiated to resolve this issue,” Murkowski said in a statement. “Based on this new information, I voted to proceed to a yes or no vote, on which I will cast my vote against Mr. Jones.”

Senators started the vote early in the afternoon and expected a quick process. But Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who was traveling from North Dakota, arrived at the Capitol late in the day. Democrats needed her vote to break the chamber’s logjam on the appointment.

“This position hasn’t had a director for seven years,” Heitkamp said in a statement her office issued while she was traveling to the Capitol. “It’s way past time that the job is finally filled.”

Jones took over as acting director of the ATF in 2011 while working as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the charge against Jones, citing the ongoing investigation.

In a Judiciary Committee hearing, Grassley said moving forward during the ongoing investigation was “not consistent with past committee practice. . . . There are sensible reasons for that.”

Jones’ confirmation gives the ATF a permanent director for the first time since 2006, when the bureau’s top spot was first subjected to Senate confirmations.

By Trevor Graff
McClatchy Washington Bureau