Senate leaders struck a deal Tuesday to avoid a showdown over the use of filibusters, ending a political drama and clearing the way for Marylander Thomas E. Perez to win confirmation as head of the Labor Department.
After days of escalating rhetoric, lawmakers agreed to allow five of President Barack Obama's seven nominees to proceed to a vote — though the deal did little to address broader concerns Democrats had raised about what they say is the GOP's burgeoning use of the filibuster to block or delay the confirmation of presidential nominees.
In a statement Tuesday evening, the president said he was pleased the Senate had reached the bipartisan agreement to move forward on most of the nominees. He added his hope that the cooperation would continue on other issues, such as the landmark immigration bill pending in Congress.
"Over the last two years, I've nominated leaders to fill important positions required to do the work of the American people, only to have those positions remain unfilled — not because the nominees were somehow unqualified, but for purely political reasons," Obama said.
The outcome virtually guarantees Perez, a 51-year-old Takoma Park man and former head of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation under Gov. Martin O'Malley, will be confirmed this week — potentially today — despite concerns expressed by many Republicans.
Perez, who currently heads the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, was nominated by Obama to the Labor job in March.
"Perez is going to get confirmed," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
"We shouldn't allow a few members to obstruct the traditional operations of the Senate," he added. "We all understand that the Senate is supposed to be deliberative — we don't want to become the House — but we want to able to respond to issues."
Perez, the only Hispanic nominated to Obama's second-term Cabinet, would take over the department as the nation continues to wrestle with high unemployment. He could play a pivotal role in administering the immigration overhaul now being considered in Congress if it were approved.
Senate Democrats, frustrated with their inability to advance the president's nominees unless they could muster the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster, had threatened to invoke the so-called "nuclear option."
The controversial procedure would have allowed Democrats to change Senate rules to allow executive branch nominees to be approved with a simple majority.
Republicans said the rule change would have limited the minority party's ability to vet nominees. Many also expressed concern that if Democrats changed the rules for nominations, a future majority leader would have had more freedom to pursue a similar effort to limit filibusters on legislation as well.
A bipartisan group of senators, hoping to avoid a slippery slope of political recriminations that could have far-reaching consequences for the chamber, struck a deal on the seven presidential nominations at hand.
Most senators attended a rare, private meeting on the issue in the Old Senate Chamber that stretched late into Monday night.
Under the agreement, five nominees, including Perez, will move forward.
The Senate voted Tuesday evening to confirm Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, two years after Obama first nominated him. Also expected to advance is Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Obama withdrew two nominations for the National Labor Relations Board and submitted two new nominees, including Nancy Schiffer, a Maryland resident and former AFL-CIO associate general counsel.
The voting began soon after the deal was announced. Cordray, who faced opposition from Republicans over concerns about the consumer protection board, was confirmed 66-34 with support from 12 Republicans and all Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a closed-door meeting with his caucus on Tuesday suggesting that the outcome was the best both parties could have hoped for. Speaking to reporters, he cited Maryland's senior senator.
"One of the people I've learned to listen to and listen to closely is Barbara Mikulski," Reid said. "Here's the advice that she gave to all of us a few minutes ago, direct quote: 'Colleagues, no gloating — maximum dignity.'"
But Democrats acknowledged that they had won no concessions from Republicans to avoid a filibuster of future nominees, such as those for the Department of Homeland Security or the Social Security Administration. Reid stressed that Democrats have not ruled out another attempt at the nuclear option if he feels that is warranted.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the meeting Monday "led to a constructive outcome."
"I thought it was really good for the institution for us to be talking to each other rather than at each other," he said.
But he also noted several times: "None of our rights will be waived."
Democrats have said Perez has a history of bipartisanship and is well qualified for the labor job. Republicans have countered that the Civil Rights Division he leads has made a series of partisan decisions, and that Perez has not been entirely forthcoming about his role in those decisions.
Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that advanced Perez's nomination on a party-line vote in May, said Tuesday he was pleased with the filibuster agreement in part because it would allow his nomination to move forward.
It "is very important because [Republicans] were coming after him," Harkin said. "They were out to stop him."
Republicans have raised several concerns about Perez, but have focused on a deal by the Justice Department to back out of a lawsuit filed against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for city leaders' dropping separate litigation against the federal government.
Republicans have said taxpayers could have recovered $200 million in misspent funds if the Justice Department had pursued the case. Perez has said he was concerned the city's lawsuit could have resulted in an adverse Supreme Court ruling. He says he cleared the move with ethics officials in the department.
McConnell used a floor speech this year to call Perez a "crusading ideologue."
Perez, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., was the first Hispanic to win a seat on the Montgomery County Council in 2002 and ran briefly for Maryland attorney general in 2006. His grandfather was a Dominican ambassador to the United States.