The Senate appears to have narrowly avoided blowing up a recent agreement on filibustering executive branch nominees by securing the 60 votes needed to advance the nomination of B. Todd Jones to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“It was close,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said after convincing Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to switch her vote to support Jones. ”The fact that we have this good spirit of bipartisanship to move these nominations forward is what guided us here.”
The Senate advanced Jones’ nomination later Wednesday by a 60-40 vote after Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., flew back to Washington to add her “yes” to the tally. The Senate later formally confirmed him, 53-42 making Jones the first person in seven years to be confirmed by the Senate to fill the ATF position.
The deal to approve Jones nearly fell through earlier in the day, which would have not only left the job vacant but torpedoed a deal struck earlier this month between Democrats and Republicans to move forward on executive branch nominees. Jones was not specifically included in the deal but if the GOP had blocked him Wednesday, it would have re-ignited a years-long fight over the minority’s increasing use of the filibuster and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s threat to change the 60 vote threshold to block a filibuster on executive branch nominees to 51 votes.
The vote on Jones was so close, Democrats held it open for hours to accommodate Heitkamp. She cast the 60th vote.
But the real drama happened earlier Wednesday, when a bipartisan tug-of-war ensued over Murkowski’s vote.
Murkowski had voted “no” on Jones, along with most Senate Republicans. Those senators, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed concerns about an open whistleblower complaint against Jones and allegations of management problems in his current position as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota. Jones, for the past two years has simultaneously be serving as acting ATF director.
Murkowski at one point was surrounded on the Senate floor by lawmakers trying to convince her to either stick to her “no” vote or switch it.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, urged her to remain opposed to Jones.
“There’s an unresolved whistleblower retaliation dispute and I encouraged her to wait until that is resolved,” Cornyn said as he exited the chamber.
Others, like Klobuchar, reminded Murkowski of the fragile filibuster deal that could have gone up in smoke if the GOP succeeded in blocking Jones just as senators are preparing to exit for the long August recess.
“That issue was raised,” Klobuchar said after Murkowski switched her vote. “Here we have been doing so well, we’ve been able to march through some really difficult nominations. The last thing we want to do is leave with some radioactive blowup.”
The Senate last week cleared President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board after a protracted fight that was resolved in part when the president replaced two controversial board members appointed during a disputed recess.
After changing her vote on Jones, Murkowski was reluctant to talk to reporters, hurrying down a staircase as she was peppered with questions.
“I’m going to defer on this right now,” she said.
Republicans weren’t happy about the switch, but no one would criticize Murkowski by name.
“Someone switched,” a smirking Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said as he ducked into an elevator.
“I learned long ago, don’t change your vote,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a former Democrat. “You’ll be subjected to arm twisting the rest of your career.”
Lawmakers didn’t pinpoint what may have convinced Murkowski to change her mind.
The lobbying of Murkowski grew so intense that Sen. Susan Collins, a friend, buzzed over in a bright yellow suit and escorted Murkowski to a less visible area.
“I was concerned that she was being pummeled by both sides and thought she might need a little break,” Collins, R-Maine, said.
Collins did not disclose what she said to Murkowski, who soon after switched her vote, but Collins said she believes the senators who oppose Jones should nonetheless resist a filibuster. They can instead vote “no” on final confirmation, she said.
“I think there are too many filibusters in the Senate,” Collins said. “And we need to move forward on bills and nominations and let the Senate work its will.”
Despite voting to move ahead with the nomination, both Collins and Murkowski then voted against Jones' confirmation.