WASHINGTON (AP) — It has taken a dramatic switched vote by one senator, a lengthy flight back from North Dakota by another and a drawn-out roll call, but Democrats moved Wednesday toward clearing the way for one of President Barack Obama's nominees to win Senate confirmation.
Despite optimism that they had the votes to prevail, Democrats struggled to end Republican delaying tactics aimed at derailing Obama's pick of B. Todd Jones to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Democrats initially seemed about to lose their effort to end those delays in a showdown vote that started at 2 p.m. A defeat would have been a setback for Obama, who is trying to plug gaps in his second-term administration's lineup, and dealt a blow to the recent cooperation between the two parties over allowing votes on the president's nominees.
In a prolonged spectacle played out largely in full view on the Senate floor, Democratic senators swarmed around Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, after she at first voted to support GOP delaying tactics.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democrats tried persuading her to switch her vote, the scrum around Murkowski was quickly enlarged when Republican senators joined the group, urging her not to change.
More than a dozen lawmakers spent nearly an hour imploring Murkowski, first on the Senate floor and then in a private cloakroom. After about 20 minutes of talks in the cloakroom, Murkowski emerged and switched her vote.
"We're going to figure out a way to move forward," she told reporters after the vote.
She later said in a written statement that she switched her vote after learning that Jones no longer was under investigation, as opponents had said he was, for his performance as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
She said she would oppose Jones when the Senate votes on final confirmation of his nomination later Wednesday. His confirmation will require only a simple majority and he was considered certain to be approved.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was also in the middle of the intense discussions, said that one point Democrats raised was that blocking a vote on Jones "would have disrupted the relative and recent comity in the Senate."
With an autumn of fights over the budget and other issues coming up, "The last thing we want to do is leave with some radioactive blowup," Klobuchar said.
Congress is due to leave for a five-week summer recess this weekend.
Murkowski's switch still left Democrats one short of the 60 votes needed to end filibusters. So they were waiting for one of their members, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, to return to the Capitol from North Dakota and cast the decisive vote for Jones. Aides said Heitkamp was expected back by around 7 p.m.
While most Senate roll calls take about 20 minutes, the Jones vote was still under way at nearly 6 p.m.
The Senate Historian's Office said that while it didn't have exhaustive data on the longest-lasting Senate roll calls, the chamber's 2009 vote on Obama's economic stimulus package lasted five hours and 15 minutes. It ended when Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, returned from a family funeral in Ohio to vote.
Many congressional Republicans have been harshly critical of the ATF, especially for its fumbled Fast and Furious Operation aimed at gun-smuggling across the Southwest border. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and others have also complained that Jones' nomination should not move forward because of whistle-blower complaints against Jones involving his work as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
Wednesday's showdown over Jones came more than three months after the Senate rejected efforts by Obama and his allies to require expanded background checks for gun buyers.
Murkowski voted against expanding those checks, but has been among the senators gun control advocates say they hope will switch and support more checks should the Senate vote again. There has been no evidence so far that she will change that background check vote.
Groups favoring stricter gun restrictions have pushed for Jones' nomination for ATF, saying he would strengthen an agency long weakened by congressionally imposed restraints. With a national registry of gun owners forbidden by federal law, authorities face constraints when they want to trace firearms used in crimes.
Five other Republicans also voted Wednesday to end the blockade against Jones. They included Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who came under pressure at home from gun control supporters after she opposed wider background checks in April.
Obama nominated Jones in January, weeks after the killings of 20 first-graders and six staffers at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Jones, a former Marine, has been acting director of ATF since 2011 and is also U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
When Obama nominated Jones, he seemed to face long odds for winning approval. But the politically potent National Rifle Association said this week that it was neutral about Jones, which even critics of Jones conceded was important.
For Obama, Tuesday's votes were the latest fruit of a month that has seen Senate approval of a cluster of long-stalled stalled nominations, including his picks to lead the FBI, the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Senators had planned to vote Wednesday to confirm Samantha Power to become ambassador to the United Nations. That roll call was postponed until Thursday.
Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, David Espo, Andrew Taylor and Matt Yancey contributed to this report.