Democrats voted Thursday to approve two of President Barack Obama's Cabinet picks out of committee following earlier days by Republicans, while signalling that the partisan bickering that has plagued Obama's attempts to move forward during his second term promise to continue.
Both Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez and Environmental Protection Agency director nominee Gina McCarthy were approved along partisan lines.
Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was "stunned" at how Republicans on her panel had treated McCarthy, currently a deputy at the EPA.
"This is an important position, she is qualified, she is decent and we have voted for her before unanimously," Boxer said.
Democrats said McCarthy was asked more than 1,000 questions, an unprecedented amount, but Republicans continued to hold up her nomination despite support from the business and environmental communities because they oppose Obama administration policies.
"It's kind of holding somebody hostage until you get an answer that you want to have," Boxer said.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the top Republican on the committee, said he and other GOP senators had boycotted last week's planned vote because they felt the EPA was stonewalling their information requests. He said Thursday he's encouraged by the progress made.
"As of last night, there's been meaningful progress in terms of our five key transparency requests and that's why we're here today to recognize that progress and to urge additional progress," he said.
Vitter also acknowledged that his opposition to McCarthy was not linked to her record but rather to extracting the information he wanted from the EPA. He said if some of his information requests were fulfilled, he would oppose a filibuster that would require a 60 vote threshold on the Senate floor rather than a simple majority. If all of his requests were satisfied, Vitter said he would vote in support of McCarthy.
"It's very clear this EPA has a pretty dismal transparency record, with email abuses completely contrary to federal law and practice, with a FOIA policy that regularly frustrates public access to information," he said. "We're finally making real progress on the five key transparency requests that have been the focus of all of the Republican members concerns about this nomination process.".
The discussion was kept to a minimum for the Perez vote among senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. Perez, who currently heads the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, has come under fire for participating in what Republicans call a quid pro quo arrangement with the city of St. Paul, Minn., which resulted in the city dropping a legal appeal that could have led to a Supreme Court decision that threatened current racial discrimination law. Democrats argue the move was ethical.
Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said he was encouraged that movement had been made on McCarthy and Perez's nominations because it is a sign the Senate gridlock may be lessening.
"My impression is we won't have anybody confirmed (in the future) if we get 1,000 written questions that the person has to answer that is too much to expect," he says. "It's encouraging that [Vitter] is acknowledging that this is burdensome and onerous and might actually support [McCarthy]. But we'll see."
Both Perez and McCarthy are likely to face serious opposition from Republicans, but it remains unclear if the GOP can muster enough opposition to sink either. Full Senate votes on the pair of nominees will likely be scheduled in the coming weeks.