WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate on Tuesday moved a step closer to approving Democratic nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Following a script crafted by the two parties, the Senate voted 64-34 to cut off debate and move to a final confirmation vote for Kent Hirozawa. By the end of the day, the Senate could confirm five nominees waiting to join the independent labor agency.
"I'm glad the Senate is moving forward as agreed to confirm five nominees to the NLRB, two Republicans and three Democrats," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the vote. "Once confirmed the NLRB will have five Senate-confirmed nominees for the first time in a decade."
Action on the NLRB nominees comes a day after the Senate took another step to break the logjam over presidential nominees by voting 93-1 to confirm James Comey to become FBI director. Comey gained attention in 2004 when, as second-ranking Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, he fought off efforts by White House officials to renew a warrantless eavesdropping program.
The lone dissenter to Comey's approval was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who suddenly halted his procedural blockage of the nomination Monday. Paul made his turnaround after receiving an FBI letter that he said answered his questions about the agency's domestic use of drones – and minutes before a Senate vote that seemed certain to force an end to Paul's delays.
The FBI letter said the agency has deployed drones infrequently and cited Supreme Court rulings that the agency said suggested that court warrants are unnecessary for aerial surveillance.
Senate leaders were hoping to approve a burst of nominations before Congress begins a five-week summer recess this weekend. In addition to Hirozawa, the two other Democrats Obama wants on the NLRB and heading for votes Tuesday were Mark Gaston Pearce, the board's current chairman, and Nancy Schiffer, who like Hirozawa has been a long-time labor attorney.
A vote was planned by Wednesday to halt delays against B. Todd Jones, whom Obama wants to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives. Top Democrats were also planning votes on Samantha Power, the president's pick for U.N. ambassador.
Assuming the votes on the three Democratic NLRB nominees go smoothly – which was expected – the Senate seemed likely to also consider two Republican candidates for the board. They are Chicago attorney Philip A. Miscimarra and Los Angeles lawyer Harry I. Johnson III, who have both worked with employers on labor issues.
The NLRB is an independent agency that is supposed to help resolve labor issues, such as disputes between unions and management or between workers and unions.
With Republicans blocking votes on nominees last year, Obama used a Senate recess to appoint three people to the board so it would have enough members to function.
Two federal appeals courts have said Obama exceeded his authority with those recess appointments. The Supreme Court has been expected to rule on the issue later this year, potentially endangering 1,600 rulings the NLRB has made since those appointments.
The three Democratic NLRB nominees were part of a bipartisan Senate deal earlier this month.
Some Republicans agreed to halt delays bottling up seven nominees, leading to confirmations that included Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Democrats dropped efforts to revamp Senate rules to weaken a minority party's powers.
Democrats also agreed to drop two of Obama's recess picks for the NLRB. He is replacing them with Hirozawa and Schiffer.
Jones, Obama's choice for ATF, has been that bureau's acting director since 2011 and is also the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota. The agency is supposed to help enforce federal gun laws.
The Senate hasn't approved an ATF chief since it was given the power to do so in 2006. The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared Jones' nomination this month on a party-line 10-8 vote after the panel's top Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, complained that two investigations involving Jones' work in Minnesota needed further review.
Jones' nomination has been viewed by some as a proxy fight over the battle for broadening gun control laws. In the past, the gun lobby has worked behind the scenes against other nominees, but top National Rifle Association lobbyist James Baker said in an interview Monday that his group was taking a neutral stance on Jones.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Power's nomination by voice vote last week. She has faced questions from critics over comments she made as a journalist and human rights campaigner viewed as critical of the U.S. or Israel.
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