WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to fill all five seats on the National Labor Relations Board and prepared to consider President Obama's picks for top diplomatic and law enforcement posts as the chamber whittled down a pile of stalled nominations.
Tuesday's votes included the last of the seven nominees that were part of a bipartisan deal earlier this month in which some Republicans agreed to end stalling tactics. Democratic leaders hope to also push other nominations through the Senate before Congress begins its summer recess this weekend, but some face uncertain fates.
Even so, that bipartisan agreement -- which saw Democrats drop a threat to change Senate rules to weaken minority party clout -- has let Obama fill some major gaps in his second-term administration. That deal and the momentum it has created has let him install leaders at agencies including the FBI, the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
On Tuesday, the chamber moved rapidly for the normally glacial Senate and approved three Democrats and two Republicans to serve on the NLRB, which helps resolve labor disputes.
Without confirmation of at least one of them before Congress' recess, much of the NLRB's work would have ground to a halt by late August. That is when NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce's current five-year term expires, which would leave the agency with just two members -- short of the three legally needed for it to conduct business.
"I applaud the Senate for putting in place a full board and look forward to working together on other steps we can take to grow our economy," Obama said in a written statement that put an optimistic face on upcoming battles with Congress over taxes and spending.
Besides renewing Pearce for another five-year term, senators also confirmed Democrats Kent Hirozawa and Nancy Schiffer, who both have long experience as labor lawyers, to the NLRB. The two Republicans approved are a pair of attorneys who have worked with employers on labor issues, Philip A. Miscimarra and Harry I. Johnson III.
On Wednesday, senators planned to begin considering Obama's nomination of B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It will also take up his selection of Samantha Power to become U.N. ambassador.
In a turnabout, Democrats were expressing optimism that they would win the 60 votes needed to end Republican roadblocks against a vote on Jones, whom Obama nominated in January to head ATF. The agency, which has not had a confirmed director since 2006, helps enforce federal gun laws.
Top National Rifle Association lobbyist Jim Baker said in an interview this week that the gun lobby would remain neutral on Jones, saying, "We find nothing in his background to concern law-abiding gun owners." The influential lobby has opposed past nominees and been a critic of the agency itself, arguing it has been too intrusive in its enforcement of gun laws.
"I think we're going to get it," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Democratic vote counter, said Tuesday about efforts to round up 60 votes for Jones.
Many gun control groups have supported Jones' nomination, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led and largely financed by wealthy New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"Senators have come to understand that one of the reasons we have the worst gun violence problem in the world is the agency that's supposed to deal with it is rudderless and under-resourced," said Mark Glaze, the group's executive director.
Many Republicans still have qualms about Jones. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has complained that the nomination should not move forward because of two whistleblower complaints against him involving his work as U.S. attorney for Minnesota, a post he has held since 2009.
"It is imprudent and unwise for the Senate to give final consideration to any nominee where there is an open investigation into that nominee's conduct," Grassley said this week.
Jones has also been acting ATF director since 2011.
Also expected to win Senate approval this week is Power, a former Obama foreign policy adviser and long-time human rights activist, whom the president wants to become U.N. ambassador.
Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on how the U.S. responded to atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, has for years advocated intervention -- including military force -- to halt human rights atrocities. At her Senate confirmation hearing this month, she distanced herself from her 2002 call for a "mammoth protection force" to prevent Middle East violence, calling it a "remarkably incoherent answer."
Another of Obama's picks seemed to be listing as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not schedule a pre-recess confirmation vote on Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That agency regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-backed mortgage giants who needed huge bailouts from Washington to survive the 2008 financial crisis and that many Republicans would like to replace or revamp.