Two of President Obama's second-term personnel picks that have attracted conservative and business opposition moved a step closer to confirmation Thursday.
Labor Secretary-nominee Thomas E. Perez and Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama's choice to head the Environmental Protect Agency, won committee approval on straight party-line votes, although both still face an uncertain fate before the full Senate.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted 12-10 to recommend the confirmation of Mr. Perez, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Ms. McCarthy, a veteran EPA official, got the nod from the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, moving ahead on a 10-8 vote.
The close votes reflect continuing GOP unhappiness with Mr. Obama's policies and record of cooperation with Congress.
"I understand that elections have consequences and presidents are entitled to be able to have Cabinet members nominated and considered by the Senate within a reasonable period of time," Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the HELP Committee's ranking Republican member, said at the hearing. "However, the Senate has a duty of advice and consent and we would not be fulfilling our constitutional duties if we rushed to vote."
Senate Democrats may try to schedule floor votes in the coming weeks on these nominees, but it is unclear whether Republicans will keep up their attempts to block the votes.
"This pointless obstructionism is extremely disturbing, and is a big part of why the people of this great nation are so frustrated with the Senate right now," HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said leading up to the Perez vote, calling the GOP tactics "delay for delay's sake."
GOP lawmakers accuse Mr. Perez of acting unethically and in a partisan manner at the Justice Department, and said recent scandals besieging the Obama White House only made the choice more problematic.
"This is particularly concerning in light of the current abuses of power we've seen from this administration of the same sort," Mr. Alexander said.
Much of the criticism surrounding Mr. Perez stems from an agreement he negotiated with the city of St. Paul, Minn., during his time at the Justice Department. Republican lawmakers accuse Mr. Perez of pressuring St. Paul officials to withdraw a housing discrimination lawsuit last year by agreeing to simultaneously drop a whistleblower case against the city.
The whistleblower case could have netted taxpayers nearly $200 million, but Mr. Perez dropped it in part because the possible precedent that would be set by the city's housing discrimination lawsuit.
"That seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing," Mr. Alexander said, accusing Mr. Perez of "manipulating the legal process."
Opponents are also critical of Mr. Perez's handling of a politically charged voter discrimination case against the New Black Panther Party. After the group was accused of scaring white voters away from the polls during the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Perez took part in the decision that ultimately led to the case being dropped.
Senate Republicans have also used parliamentary tactics to slow down the Environmental and Public Works Committee's vote on Ms. McCarthy's nomination to run the EPA. They argue the agency hasn't been as open and honest as it has promised to be, and business groups have been critical of what they say has been the EPA's activist approach under Mr. Obama.
Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the ranking Republican on the panel, said there had been "meaningful progress" in getting information from the EPA about the agency and the nominee, including the agency's policy on the use of personal email accounts, after it was revealed former Administrator Lisa P. Jackson conducted some official business via email under the alias "Richard Windsor."
But Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said she regretted the sharp partisan breakdown of the vote.
"I can't celebrate a partisan vote. I just can't," she said.
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