By David Espo Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Senate stepped away from the brink of a meltdown Tuesday, confirming one of President Barack Obama’s long-stalled nominees, 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.
McCain told reporters that forging the deal was “probably the hardest thing I’ve been involved in.”
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.
Still, officials in both parties said they hoped the deal would signal a new, less acrimonious time for the Senate, with critical decisions ahead on spending, the government’s borrowing authority, student loan interest rates and more.
Under the agreement, several of seven stalled nominees would win confirmation this week, including Labor Secretary-designate Tom Perez; Gina McCarthy, named to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Fred Hochberg to head of the Export-Import Bank.
Cordray’s long-stalled nomination advanced toward approval on a test vote of 71-29, far more than the 60 required.
Two new nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, were submitted quickly by Obama and steered toward speedy consideration by Republicans.
Pearce, who is awaiting confirmation to a new term, is likely to be approved along with the NLRB nominees. 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,” said Reid.
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 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.
Reid’s threat to remove that right as it applied to some nominations was invariably described as the “nuclear option” for its likely impact on the institution.
The same term was used when Republicans made a similar threat on judicial nominations in 2005 — an earlier showdown that McCain helped defuse when it was his own party threatening to change the rules unilaterally.