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After arm-twisting, Senate OKs first ATF chief in seven years

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.

Senate leaders were forced to hold open a procedural vote for hours to wait for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to arrive in Washington and cast the 60th vote. 

The ATF has not had a permanent director since 2006, when the position became subject to Senate approval. Jones has served as acting director since 2011.

The nomination would have failed if not for last-minute, on-the-floor arm-twisting -- all visible on the chamber's cameras -- to try and sway Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Democratic leaders -- and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has led a small group of Republicans who have been voting for Obama's nominees -- thought she would vote to advance the Jones nomination; but then she arrived and voted "no."

That would have left Democrats one vote short of the 60 they needed -- and potentially shattered the tenuous comity that's allowed nominees for the Environmental Protection Agency, National Labor Relations Board and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to move forward in recent weeks.

Sens. McCain and Susan Collins of Maine spoke with Murkowski off the floor, trying to convince her to vote "yes," and Murkowski was spotted on the Senate floor surrounded by colleagues from both parties trying to sway her.

Murkowski eventually changed her vote to "yes." 

After the vote, Murkowski said in a statement that she was told during the vote that an investigation into Jones – for mismanagement – wasn’t active.

“When I initially voted against cloture, it was based on my understanding that the nominee was the subject of an investigation, because I believe that it is common sense to not confirm someone who is the subject of an active investigation,” she said. “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. 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.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was pushing the Jones nomination -- he's also from Minnesota -- and said that a process that normally happens behind closed doors played out on the floor. She said senators raised the possibility of shattering the deal on nominations -- and potentially jeopardizing any potential big deal on the budget come fall.

"That issue was raised, that here we have been doing so well," Klobuchar told reporters in the Capitol. "But that we've been able to march through some really difficult nominations, like the NLRB and EPA, and the last thing we want right now as we head into the fall when I still think there's a good chance we could get a bipartisan agreement on the budget and on the debt at least out of the Senate -- the last thing we want to do is to leave with some radioactive blowup."

Said Klobuchar: "It wasn't pretty, but it got done."