Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other senators walk to a closed-door… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON -- It wasn’t long after Lisa Murkowski voted to continue a filibuster of President Obama’s nominee to lead the ATF that the Alaska Republican found herself surrounded in the well of the Senate, as colleagues from both parties made a determined case for her to change or maintain that vote.
The stakes were high, and the lobbying effort reflected it. No Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives director has been confirmed since a 2006 law required a Senate approval for such nominees, but the Democratic majority thought circumstances had changed sufficiently to pave the way for B. Todd Jones, the agency’s acting director for two years.
Senate leaders, including New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn, held firm on either side of Murkowski. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined the conversation, as did two of their top aides.
At one point Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called upon Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to intervene, and to remind Murkowski of the tenuous peace that he had helped broker just weeks earlier to prevent a change in Senate filibuster rules. The deal also was meant to ease the confirmation of several Obama nominees.
After nearly half an hour, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) felt the need to intervene, and pulled Murkowski away from the scrum and off the Senate floor.
“I was concerned that she was being pummeled by both sides, and thought she might need a little break,” Collins said later, adding that it was an opportunity to “have just a nice little chat” with her friend about a recent dinner Murkowski had hosted as part of a semiregular gathering of the women in the Senate.
When Murkowski returned to the floor nearly half an hour later, she changed her vote and rebuffed the filibuster, which put Jones on the path to confirmation later that evening.
In an interview after Wednesday’s votes, Murkowski said that she didn’t feel “pummeled,” as Collins worried, or she “would have excused [herself] far earlier."
“The fact of the matter is, as long as I was learning information and listening to both sides of the argument then it was productive for me,” she said.
Murkowski said that she and Collins had indeed talked about the meal she hosted. Murkowski had proposed a potluck dinner because her husband, who usually does the cooking, was out of town.
“I was advised by my assistant that the women of the Senate don't do potlucks. To which I responded, ‘Of course we do,’” Murkowski recalled.
Each of the 17 attendees that night brought a home-state product, and told “a lot of good personal stories” related to them. “We've all agreed it was the best women senators' dinner yet.”
But Murkowski acknowledged that she and Collins weren’t just talking about the salmon entree. Collins was one of just five Republicans who to that point had broken with the party to support ending the filibuster.
The crux of the issue for Murkowski was her understanding that Jones was the subject of an ongoing investigation stemming from his time as a U.S. attorney in Minnesota. Grassley, who led the Republican opposition to Jones’ confirmation, cited an allegation that Jones had retaliated against a whistle-blower in the office who had raised concern about Jones’ relationship with federal, state and local authorities.
Collins said that she, too, had concerns about the nature of the investigation, and would vote against confirming Jones when the final confirmation vote took place. But, she later told reporters, “I think that there are too many filibusters in the Senate, and that we need to move forward on bills and nominations and need to let the Senate work its will.”
Before Collins took Murkowski aside, the Alaska senator had heard from Democrats who explained that the investigation had concluded and was now in a mediation phase. The conversation with Collins helped Murkowski make the decision to change her vote so that the filibuster would end, and an up-or-down vote on his nomination could take place.
“I think it was an important conversation to have with my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee -- those that have been involved with the vetting,” she said. “That changed the direction for me.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who had also joined the Senate floor lobbying session, explained later that Murkowski was also warned about the possible consequences of an Obama nominee being filibustered so soon after the recent agreement by Republicans to allow a slate of other nominees to advance.