WASHINGTON — The Senate stepped away from the brink of a meltdown on Tuesday, confirming one of President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominees, agreeing to quick action on 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."
The White House reaped the first fruits of the deal within hours, when Richard Cordray's nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was approved 66-34. He was first nominated in July 2011 and has been in office by virtue of a recess appointment that bypassed the Senate.
In a written statement, Obama said he was pleased by the developments and that he hoped Congress would "build on this spirit of cooperation" to pass immigration legislation and rein in interest rates on student loans, among other measures.
As part of the Tuesday's agreement, both parties preserved their rights to resume combat over nominations in the future, Republicans by delaying votes and Democrats by threatening once again to change the rules governing such delays.
Still, 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, 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. Republicans refused to confirm them, first because the Senate was bypassed, and later saying the nominations had been tainted by the court ruling.
In their places, Obama nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said their appointments would be reviewed and voted on in committee on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, and then come before the Senate for confirmation the following day.
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, 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 Reid.
"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.
The same term was used when Republicans made a similar threat on judicial nominations in 2005 — an earlier showdown that McCain helped defuse when it was his own party threatening to change the rules unilaterally.
As part of the deal over Obama's nominees, Republicans agreed to step aside and permit confirmation of several, some of whom they had long stalled. Cordray was first appointed in July 2011, but a vote was held up by GOP lawmakers who sought to use his confirmation as leverage to make changes in the legislation that created his agency.
McCarthy was named to her post in March, and Republicans dragged their feet, demanding she answer hundreds of questions about the EPA. At one point, they boycotted a committee meeting called to approve her appointment.
Perez, also nominated in March, is a senior Justice Department official, and was accused by Republicans of making decisions guided by left-wing ideology rather than the pursuit of justice.
As described by officials, the deal is strikingly similar to a proposal that McConnell floated in remarks on the Senate floor last week during an unusually personal exchange with Reid. At the time, the Kentucky Republican also said he had told Obama last January to drop his hopes of confirmation for Griffin and Clark and instead name two replacements for quick consideration. He relayed the same message again last month to Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator with whom he has a long relationship.
Tuesday's developments unfolded the morning after a closed-door meeting of nearly all 100 senators, many of them eager to avoid a rules change that could poison relations between the two parties at a time the Senate is struggling in an era of chronic gridlock. About three dozen lawmakers spoke in the course of a session that lasted more than three hours, and while few details have emerged, several participants said later it had been a productive meeting.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she had urged others to "look ahead and think about the time when we would have a Republican president with Republican Senate and there could be someone appointed who was completely unacceptable to my Democratic colleagues and was nominated to run their favorite program" She said she asked if they "really want to give away their right to filibuster that individual."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the sense of history hung over the meeting, which was held in the Old Senate Chamber, where lawmakers had debated slavery and other great national issues for much of the 19th century. "Senator McCain talked about Webster, Jefferson and Madison. We knew that we were on sacred political ground," he said.
McCain told reporters that with McConnell's knowledge, he had been involved in talks for several days in search of a compromise, speaking with Biden, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and numerous senators.
"At least 10 times it came together, and then fell apart because there's always some new wrinkle," he said.