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ATF nominee wins close Senate confirmation battle

Aug. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

In a tense, cliffhanger vote Wednesday, Democrats barely beat back a GOP-led filibuster of Byron Todd Jones to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Senate confirmed him 53 to 42 to be the agency’s first permanent director in seven years.

President Obama asked Jones to take the ATF post permanently after last December’s elementary school shooting in Connecticut, which left 20 children and six educators dead. Obama made Jones’ nomination part of his larger push to reduce gun violence.

Jones’ win marks the first time the Senate has approved a nominee to the agency. Senate confirmation became a requirement for the job in 2006, and since then, lawmakers have stalled or rebuffed every nominee, leaving the agency in the hands of a series of acting directors.

Supporters hailed Jones’ approval as a victory for an agency that has been battered by bouts of scandal and tumult. With his confirmation fight over, proponents said, Jones will bring new stability to a bureau charged with enforcing sensitive federal gun laws and leading significant criminal investigations.

“The ship will have a captain,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. As the confirmed director, Jones can set policy and “be around to carry it out,” he said.

But Republicans blasted Wednesday’s vote as premature and ill-advised. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, led the opposition and highlighted allegations that Jones cracked down on whistle-blowers as Minnesota’s U.S. attorney. The complaint against Jones charged that he suspended the assistant U.S. attorney and gave him a low performance evaluation after he engaged in “protected whistle-blowing” activities, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that the Senate needed to wait until that matter was closed — including the ongoing mediation process — before moving ahead with Jones’ nomination. And he found plenty of allies in that pitch.

“There’s an ongoing investigation,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “For us to make a decision and then have that blow up ... I’m not saying it will but if it does, that would be a huge mistake.”

But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said it was “way past time” for the Senate to fill the ATF job.

“This position hasn’t had a director for seven years,” she said, and Jones has the right resume for the post.

“He has built a reputation as someone who has aggressively fought back against gang violence and gun trafficking,” she said. “I hope the ATF will be able to do its job, just as the American people deserve.”

Deirdre Shesgreen reports for Gannett Washington Bureau.

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