Bowing to an ultimatum, Senate Republicans agreed Tuesday to drop objections to key Obama administration nominees, delivering a victory to Senate Democrats who said they will shelve — for now — their own plans to change the rules and curtail filibusters.
The last-minute deal, announced just before the Senate was slated to hold a critical test vote, still leaves Democrats able to employ the so-called "nuclear option" and change the filibuster rules later this year if they think Republicans are obstructing appointments unfairly.
Republicans said they got President Obama to withdraw two controversial nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, but the president won assurances that his new picks will be approved before the Senate leaves for its monthlong summer recess.
Both sides said escaping this week without a major blowup counts as a victory for a Senate that has been plagued by partisan gridlock for much of the past decade.
"I think there is a good feeling here in the Senate, the best feeling we've had in a real long time," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said moments after meeting with his party colleagues to discuss the informal deal.
Late in the day, Mr. Obama reaped the first fruits of the cease-fire when the Senate confirmed Richard Cordray to be head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a powerful new board set up in the wake of the Wall Street collapse to monitor banks and other financial institutions.
In the 66-34 vote on Mr. Cordray's nomination, 12 Republicans joined Democrats, who have desperately sought to have the bureau up and running. Republican opponents said they will continue to fight for changes, including creating an independent auditor to serve as a watchdog.
Tuesday's deal stemmed from an extraordinary all-senators, closed-door meeting Monday night, which stretched more than three hours and set up negotiations involving Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who brokered the final cease-fire, which applies to seven nominees Democrats said Republicans have long been blocking.
Mr. McCain said the deal doesn't apply to any future nominees, but it defused the current crisis and set a better tone for future nomination battles.
"I think this will calm things down," he said.
The other nominees Republicans agreed not to obstruct include picks to head the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Export-Import Bank and one NLRB member. Mr. Obama officially withdrew and replaced two other NLRB nominees with others late Tuesday, making good on his end of the bargain.
Republicans said that was a victory because the previous two NLRB nominees had been given recess appointments in January 2012 — appointments that a federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional because the Senate wasn't technically in recess.
Republicans said approving those nominees now would seem to be putting the Senate's imprimatur on them.
"The White House decided to take the nuclear trigger out of Sen. Reid's hand and withdraw these nominees," said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Still, Republicans struggled to explain why they also didn't refuse to budge on Mr. Cordray, who was given a recess appointment the same day as the NLRB nominees. A Senate aide said it came down to the fact that Republicans were more unified on the NLRB nominees than they were in opposing Mr. Cordray.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, bristled at accusations that the deal only delays an inevitable showdown on filibusters.
"I congratulate you for your best efforts to try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Mr. McConnell told reporters. "You can pick at it if you want to, but I think it was an important moment for the Senate."
Already, though, signs of the next fight were brewing.
While this week's fight was over executive branch nominees, the White House and interest groups have warned that they believe Republicans are trying to block the president's judicial picks as well.
Mr. Obama has teed up three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is viewed as the second-most important court in the country because it handles appeals from major regulatory agencies, including the NLRB.
Indeed, that was the same court that ruled Mr. Obama violated the Constitution with his recess appointments to the NLRB.
Republicans say the move to add the three judges to the court is retaliation for that decision, and they have vowed to block the nominations, saying the panel already has enough judges to handle its caseload.
Mr. Reid, who helped pioneer filibusters against appellate court nominees when President George W. Bush was in office, has said he doesn't intend to change those rules — though some members of his caucus are pushing for him to do so.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Mr. Obama praised his former Senate colleagues for working out a deal and said he wanted senators to build on the bipartisanship.
"In the weeks ahead, I hope the Congress will build on this spirit of cooperation to advance other urgent middle-class priorities, including the need to take action to pass commonsense immigration reform and keep interest rates on student loans low for families trying to afford a higher education," he said.
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