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Senate steps back from brink in fight over nominations, filibuster

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 3:09 p.m. MDT

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and GOP leaders talk to reporters after the Senate stepped back from the brink of a political meltdown, clearing the way for confirmation of one of President Barack Obama’s long-stalled nominations, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. At far left is Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate stepped away from the brink of a meltdown on Tuesday, clearing the way for confirmation of several of President Barack Obama's nominees long blocked by Republicans, agreeing to quick action on unnamed 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, a veteran of uncounted legislative struggles, told reporters that forging the deal was "probably the hardest thing I've been involved in."

There was no immediate response from the White House, although Democratic senators said the terms of the compromise were acceptable to the administration.

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 later in the 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.

Even before the agreement was ratified by the rank and file, Richard 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.

In their places, officials said Obama intends to nominate Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce.

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 by the end of August, 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 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"Crisis averted," said the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

There was more to it than that.

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. Reid's threat to remove that right as it applied to nominations to administration positions was invariably described as the "nuclear option" for its likely impact on an institution with minority rights woven into its fabric.

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