By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday confirmed a director for the federal agency that regulates firearms, fulfilling one of the demands President Barack Obama made after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
After a delay while lawmakers awaited the return of a colleague who was flying in from North Dakota, senators voted 53-42 to install prosecutor Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The troubled bureau, which gun-rights activists often criticize as too aggressive, has experienced stagnant funding and had lacked a permanent director since 2006.
In January, a month after a gunman opened fire at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults, Obama asked the Senate to confirm an ATF director as part of his plan to prevent future mass killings.
Many of Obama's other demands, such as an expansion of federal background checks, have failed to win the necessary support in Congress.
For the firearms bureau, Senate Democrats echoed Obama's frustrations.
"It is time for the Senate to do its job and confirm an ATF director for the first time in seven years," Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said on Wednesday.
Jones has run the ATF as part-time acting director since September 2011, while remaining the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, the state's chief federal prosecutor.
A former Marine, he joined the Justice Department after Obama took office in 2009 and also served as a federal prosecutor in the 1990s.
Removing some potential opposition to Jones, the National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun-rights lobbying group, said it was neutral on him.
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, urged a delay in the vote, saying Jones had made comments discouraging to ATF whistle-blowers who might report waste or abuse.
Votes typically last 15 minutes, but Democrats who control the Senate required much longer to confirm Jones. To reach a 60-vote threshold to end debate, they needed Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to fly to Washington.
While Heitkamp was absent from the Senate floor, lawmakers kept up an unusual, five-hour procedural vote needed to clear the way for confirmation. That delay matched the length of a 2009 vote on Obama's economic stimulus package.
The ATF remains an object of intense criticism because of Operation Fast and Furious, a botched investigation of gun trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.
Beginning in 2009, ATF agents in the operation focused on building cases against the leaders of a trafficking ring, and in the process did not pursue low-level buyers of about 2,000 potentially illegal firearms.
The operation was brought to light when a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed in December 2010. Two guns connected with the case were found at the scene of the shootout where he died, although investigators could not determine if the guns were used to kill Terry.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Patrick Rucker; Editing by Peter Cooney)