Senate nears approval of Labor Department chief

FILE - In this April 18, 2013, file photo, Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination. The Senate voted by the slimmest margin Wednesday, July 17, 2013, to end a filibuster against President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Labor Department, as this week’s agreement averting a poisonous partisan clash over nominations and the chamber’s rules barely survived its toughest test so far. By 60-40, senators rejected Republican objections and voted to halt delaying tactics aimed at killing Perez’s nomination to become labor secretary. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate moved toward approval Thursday of President Barack Obama's choice to head the Labor Department after lawmakers, by the thinnest of margins, honored a bipartisan pact and removed procedural obstacles that had been blocking the nomination.

The chamber was expected to confirm Thomas Perez as labor secretary by a near party-line roll call. After that, lawmakers were scheduled to debate Obama's selection of Gina McCarthy to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perez, 51, is the son of Dominican immigrants who worked once as a trash collector and now leads the Justice Department's civil rights division. He was praised Thursday by Democrats.

"He has spent his career fighting for working families, protecting our important civil rights laws and turning around troubled agencies," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Republicans consider him too liberal and ideological. GOP senators have suggested that politics has guided his decisions about enforcing voting rights laws and have accused him of supporting efforts to sidestep federal immigration laws when he was a local government official in Maryland.

"Tom Perez is more than just some left-wing ideologue — he's a left-wing ideologue who appears perfectly willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted narrowly to end a filibuster against Perez. All but six Republicans voted against Perez — the exact number of GOP senators that majority Democrats needed to muster the 60 votes required to end the delaying tactic against Perez's nomination.

That 60-40 vote was the closest senators have come to unwinding this week's deal between the two parties that has averted all-out partisan warfare over nominations and Senate rules. That roll call seemed to signal that while GOP leaders would deliver the votes needed to honor the bipartisan agreement, numerous Republicans were rankled by the pact and unhappy with Perez.

McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA's air pollution office, has helped craft rules aimed at reducing pollutants from power plants and other sources. Republicans have long criticized the agency for championing overly restrictive regulations that they say kill jobs.

Last week, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, top Republican on the Senate environment committee, said he was dropping efforts to delay McCarthy's nomination after the EPA agreed to release more information about how it makes decisions. McCarthy has also faced opposition from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., because of delays to a flood control project.

In exchange for the GOP halting filibusters against seven of Obama's top nominees, majority Democrats dropped a threat of a rules change that would have prevented opponents from requiring a 60-vote threshold to end filibusters of top agency appointees. That ability to wage filibusters unless the hard-to-achieve 60 votes are accumulated has long been prized and utilized by minority parties.

The other five nominees involved in the deal are Richard Cordray, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Fred Hochberg, whom the Senate approved Wednesday to continue leading the Export-Import Bank; labor lawyers Nancy Schiffer and Kent Hirozawa to join the National Labor Relations Board; and NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, whom Obama wants to keep in the role.