WASHINGTON – The Senate stepped away from the brink of a meltdown on Tuesday, confirming one of President Barack Obama’s nominees long stalled by Republicans, agreeing to quick action on others and finessing a Democratic threat to overturn historic rules that protect minority-party rights.
“Nobody wants to come to Armageddon here,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat whose talks with Arizona Republican John McCain were critical in avoiding a collision that had threatened to plunge the Senate even deeper into partisan gridlock.
The White House reaped the first fruits of the deal within hours, when Richard Cordray’s nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was approved 66-34. He was first nominated in July 2011 and has been in office by virtue of a recess appointment that bypassed the Senate.
As part of the Tuesday’s agreement, both parties preserved their rights to resume combat over nominations in the future, Republicans by delaying votes and Democrats by threatening once again to change the rules governing such delays.
Under the agreement, several of seven stalled nominees would win confirmation later in the week, including Labor Secretary-designate Tom Perez and Gina McCarthy, named to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Fred Hochberg, appointed head of the Export-Import Bank, is on track for approval today.
Even before the agreement was ratified by the rank and file, Cordray’s long-stalled nomination to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau advanced toward approval on a test vote of 71-29, far more than the 60 required.
Two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Clark, are to be replaced by new selections, submitted quickly by Obama and steered toward speedy consideration by Senate Republicans. Obama installed Griffin and Clark in their posts by recess appointments in 2011, bypassing the Senate but triggering a legal challenge. An appeals court recently said the two appointments were invalid, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case. Republicans refused to confirm them, first because the Senate was bypassed, and later saying the nominations had been tainted by the court ruling.
In their places, Obama nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said their appointments would be reviewed and voted on in committee on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, and then come before the Senate for confirmation the following day.
Pearce, awaiting confirmation to a new term, is the seventh appointee at issue. His pick is relatively uncontroversial, and he is likely to be approved along with the replacements for Griffin and Clark, if not before. The NLRB appointments, if confirmed as expected, would prevent the virtual shutdown of the agency because of a lack of confirmed board members to rule on collective bargaining disputes between unions and companies.
“I think we get what we want, they get what they want. Not a bad deal,” Reid said.
“Crisis averted,” said the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Scarcely 24 hours earlier, Reid had insisted that if Republicans didn’t stop blocking confirmation of all seven, he would trigger a change in the Senate’s procedures to strip them of their ability to delay. At the core of the dispute is the minority party’s power to stall or block a yes-or-no vote on nearly anything, from legislation to judicial appointments to relatively routine nominations for administration positions.
While a simple majority vote is required to confirm presidential appointees, it takes 60 votes to end delaying tactics and proceed to a yes-or-no vote.