WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Wednesday nearly torpedoed President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Among those watching with puzzlement was Mark Kelly, the former astronaut who now runs a gun control group with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.).
"It was a pretty big shock," Kelly told The Huffington Post. "I didn't think this confirmation today would have been controversial. It's hard to tell what's going on."
The director's slot at the ATF has been empty for seven years, and in light of a recent deal by Senate Republicans not to block a batch of Obama's executive branch nominees, it appeared that the path was clear for nominee B. Todd Jones. The National Rifle Association announced that it was staying neutral on his nomination, and another gun rights group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, actually endorsed Jones.
But when it came time to vote, most Republicans voted no. For nearly an hour, Democrats scrambled to find one more vote to get the 60 they needed to clear a filibuster. They finally settled on furiously lobbying Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to switch from no to yes. She ultimately did, but it was a close call.
Kelly said he suspected that Republicans tried to block Jones' confirmation because the gun lobby privately urged them to. He pointed out that the NRA has for years attempted to cripple the ATF's ability to operate.
"I don't think they were as quiet as people think they were," he said of the NRA. "Maybe there was some behind-the-scenes lobbying."
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam dismissed the idea that the group had any involvement in Jones' nomination nearly going down. "We were neutral," Arulanandam told HuffPost.
Asked if the NRA had been talking to any of the Republican senators ahead of the vote, Arulanandam responded, "What part of neutral do you not understand?"
A request for comment from the Gun Owners of America was not immediately returned.
Whatever the reason for Republicans nearly sinking Jones, they did not succeed. He was confirmed by a 53-42 vote on Wednesday night. And Kelly couldn't be happier.
"It's a huge victory," he said, noting how little Congress has done in response to the spate of mass shootings around the country in recent years. Giffords nearly died in one of those shootings in January 2011. She was shot in the head twice in a shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that left six others dead and 13 injured.
"It's been seven months since Newtown ... and our national response so far has been nothing until today?" Kelly said of the December 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "Having a permanent director at ATF means he can do his job of enforcing the existing laws and try to make our communities safer from gun violence."
Momentum for action on gun control legislation has slowed on Capitol Hill in the months since the Senate narrowly failed to advance background checks legislation in April. Kelly said he's hopeful that the Senate will hold another vote on background checks before the 2014 elections. Until then, he and Giffords are getting involved in state-level pushes for gun control measures. They're also raising money through their super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to run ads in 2014 against Republican senators who voted against the background checks bill.
Their super PAC, launched in January, filed its campaign contributions report with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday. The group has raised $6.5 million in the first six months of the year from more than 72,000 contributors. According to Pia Carusone, the group's executive director, that makes Americans for Responsible Solutions the largest super PAC in the country in terms of the number of its donors in that period.
"We're going to be around for the long haul," Kelly added. "The NRA has done a fabulous job of building a lot of support for their views. They do not promote safe communities."
UPDATE: Aug. 1 -- Jason Weiser, a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, later told HuffPost the group had been actively lobbying Republicans to block Jones' confirmation.
"We most certainly have," Weiser said. "We told members of Congress the vote would affect their GOA rating."