It took a prolonged process and plenty of arm-twisting, but as of last night, the nation finally has an ATF director.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has its first Senate-confirmed head in seven years, after the upper chamber voted 53-42 to approve Byron Todd Jones for the post.
But the nomination was almost sunk earlier Thursday, when the Senate came close to rejecting President Barack Obama’s nominee, jeopardizing the fragile deal that’s allowed other controversial nominees to be confirmed.
The process included far more drama than we’re ordinarily accustomed to seeing. Indeed, to overcome a filibuster from the Senate’s Republican minority, the majority needed to hold the procedural vote open for hours so Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) could reach the Capitol and cast the 60th vote.
Those supporting Jones’ confirmation would have still been one vote short, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who’d originally supported her party’s filibuster, eventually changed her mind and allowed the nomination to advance. Murkowski was lobbied by members on both sides on the Senate floor, but it was a closed-door chat with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) that ultimately helped flip Murkowski from a “no” to a “yes.”
In the process, the delicate detente on confirmation votes for executive-branch nominees remains intact. The ATF nomination was not formally part of last month’s “nuclear option” deal, but Democrats and McCain-led Republicans like the relative peace that’s broken out and hope to maintain it for a while.
Reflecting on last night’s progress, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a Jones ally, said, “It wasn’t pretty, but it got done.”
Of course, putting aside congressional drama altogether, there’s the more important fact that the ATF will now have its first Senate-confirmed director since 2006, which is no small development.
As we discussed yesterday, President Obama laid out a detailed and ambitious agenda on gun reforms in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, and one of the key elements of the plan was having a director of the ATF.
Seven months later, there aren’t too many check marks next to the proposals the White House put forward – most require congressional approval – but this important step is now complete.
For years, the right has consistently argued that the nation doesn’t need new gun laws; we simply need to enforce the old ones. With conservative senators undermining the ATF – the agency chiefly responsible for enforcing existing gun laws – the argument has always been rather self-defeating.
But this time, miraculously, the system just barely worked. Obama nominated a qualified nominee; the NRA stayed neutral; a Republican filibuster was defeated; and the ATF finally has the leadership it’s been looking for since 2006.
There hasn’t been much progress on gun policy in recent years, so reformers have reason to feel some satisfaction today.
Jeremy Funk, the communications director for Americans United for Change, said Jones’ confirmation was “a huge victory for communities that want the freedom not to live in fear of gun violence and a blow for illegal straw gun purchasers.”