Senate set for showdown on Obama ATF nominee

The Senate is ready for a showdown on President Obama's pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives in a battle that carries echoes of this year's gun control fight. 

Democrats were forcing a vote Wednesday on ending Republican stalling tactics against B. Todd Jones' nomination to head the agency, which enforces federal firearms laws. They are hoping for a different outcome this time for Obama and his allies, who were defeated in April when the Senate refused to expand background check requirements for gun buyers. 

With Congress itching to begin a summer recess at week's end, Wednesday's schedule also includes a vote on ending delays against Samantha Power, whom the president nominated to become ambassador to the United Nations. The former Obama foreign policy adviser and longtime human rights activist was expected to win approval. 

Jones seemed to face tough odds in January when Obama named him to become ATF director. But with the influential National Rifle Association saying this week that it is neutral about Jones, Democrats have expressed optimism that they will garner the 60 votes needed to halt the delays and hold a confirmation vote. 

"I think we're going to get it," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Democrats' vote counter. 

Obama nominated Jones shortly after the December massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., turned firearms violence into a top-tier issue. The gunman killed 20 first-graders and six staffers. 

The NRA has opposed past nominees to head the ATF, an agency which has been without a Senate-confirmed director since 2006, and long has accused it of making it hard for legitimate, would-be gun owners. 

But this week, top NRA lobbyist Jim Baker said in an interview that the group was not taking a position on Jones and would not use his confirmation vote to rate how closely senators hew to NRA positions. 

"We haven't seen anything that concerns us from the standpoint of gun issues," Baker said of Jones. 

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is among those who have complained that the nomination should not move forward because of two whistle-blower complaints against Jones involving his work as U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Jones has held that job since 2009 and has been acting ATF director since 2011. 

Grassley also has wanted more information on what Jones knows about the ATF's mishandled "Fast and Furious" gun smuggling sting operation. Jones has said he arrived at the agency after that episode. 

Grassley said Tuesday that his opposition to Jones was "more process than substance" and said he did not know whether opponents would win the 41 votes needed to block the nomination. He called the NRA's neutrality "significant." 

Gun control groups have backed Jones' nomination as a way of strengthening an agency that they complain has long been weakened by congressionally imposed restraints. With a national registry of gun owners forbidden by federal law, authorities are limited when they want to trace firearms used in crimes. 

Backing Jones are many groups that fought to expand background checks this year. That includes Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led and largely financed by billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence; and the Newtown Action Alliance, which represents some families from that community. 

The Irish-born Power won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on how the U.S. responded to atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s and for years has backed intervention -- including military force -- to halt human rights atrocities. At her Senate confirmation hearing this month, she distanced herself from her 2002 call for a "mammoth protection force" to prevent Middle East violence, calling it a "remarkably incoherent answer." 

On Tuesday, the Senate approved nominees for all five seats on the National Labor Relations Board, which tries to settle labor disputes. Senators' confirmation of those selections, three Democrats and two Republicans, prevents the agency from all but ceasing work in late August, when vacancies would have left just two board members -- one fewer than required for it to make decisions. 

One appointment that seems to be in trouble is Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., whom the president wants to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. 

With Democrats saying all week they were having problems rounding up enough votes to end GOP delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday he would not schedule a pre-recess confirmation vote on Watt. 

The housing finance agency regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant, taxpayer-backed mortgage companies that needed huge bailouts from Washington to survive the 2008 financial crisis. Many Republicans would like to replace or revamp both of them.