Senate Skips Cloture Vote and Confirms Comey as FBI Chief

FBI Director nominee James Comey FBI Director nominee James Comey Evan Vucci/AP File Photo

The Senate on Monday confirmed President Obama’s nominee to head the FBI on a 93-1 vote, with two senators voting present, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, negotiated an agreement to forgo an expected cloture vote.

James Comey will succeed Robert Mueller, overcoming a hold by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who raised questions about the bureau’s domestic use of unarmed drones. Opposition to the nomination fell apart when Paul dropped his hold, saying the FBI had answered his questions. Paul was the only senator to vote no; Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., voted present.

“The FBI answered the questions I had on domestic surveillance drone use, though I disagree with their interpretation,” Paul said in a tweet.

Democrats praised Comey as a candidate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recounted a now oft-repeated tale of Comey’s intervention at the bedside of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft when a then-White House official tried to persuade him to reauthorize a National Security Agency surveillance program. “James Comey is the right man to lead the FBI,” Leahy said.

Aside from Paul’s objections, Republicans were also supportive. Grassley called Comey a “fine choice,” and Republican leadership voted for confirmation.

Both of Oregon’s senators have opposed parts of the government’s domestic-surveillance program, which led Wyden to withhold his assent to the confirmation. “After reviewing the record of Mr. Comey’s confirmation hearing and meeting with him in person, his views on surveillance policy and law remain unclear to me,” Wyden said in a statement. Merkley voted present because Comey did not answer Wyden’s questions on “important privacy issues,” according to Merkley spokesman Matt McNally.

Comey, whom Obama nominated on June 21, faced a filibuster threat from Paul, who wrote two letters to the agency in July, seeking details on the drone program. In a letter, the FBI admitted to using drones 10 times over the past seven years but noted the aircraft were not armed with lethal weapons and there were no plans to do so, according to the letter. Paul followed the FBI’s response with another letter seeking answers on the agency’s definitions regarding privacy.

For Paul, the Comey nomination represented another opportunity to demonstrate his concerns over drones. Earlier this year, Paul, who is considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate, notably engaged in a talking filibuster of John Brennan, whom Obama named to lead the CIA, over the drones.

“Given the fact that they did respond to my concerns over drone use on U.S. soil, I have decided to release my hold,” Paul said on Monday.

Comey cleared the Judiciary panel on July 18. His primary obstacle was Paul’s filibuster threat, and Reid lamented the fact that he filed for cloture, suggesting Republicans were to blame for slowing down the confirmation process. It has become a familiar refrain for Reid, but late on Monday, he interrupted Grassley after the Iowa Republican said on the floor he supported Comey. They talked off-mic briefly, with Reid announcing after the conversation there would be only a confirmation vote.

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