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Senate clears way for vote on Obama EPA pick

Alan Fram, Associated Press

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 cleared the way Thursday for final approval of President Barack Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, hours after confirming a new labor secretary.

Senators voted 69-31 Thursday to overcome Republican objections that have blocked a vote on Gina McCarthy to head the EPA, nine votes more than are needed to end filibusters. Democrats consider McCarthy, who since 2009 has headed the agency's air pollution office, to be a longtime environmental champion while Republicans say that she has helped issue regulations that hurt the economy and cost jobs.

McCarthy worked for years as a state environmental official in New England, working at times under Republican governors, including 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

"Gina McCarthy knows how to bring people together," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The Senate planned to give final approval to McCarthy's nomination soon, though the exact timing was unclear.

Earlier Thursday, senators confirmed Thomas Perez to head the Labor Department on a 54-46 party-line vote.

The day's votes marked the latest, sudden progress for Obama in filling his second-term leadership team. The movement followed this week's bipartisan deal in which Republicans agreed to end blockades against seven nominations and Democrats shelved efforts to change Senate rules to weaken the minority GOP's powers.

Perez, 51, is a son of Dominican immigrants who once worked as a trash collector. Since earning a Harvard University law degree, his career has included stints as a Justice Department civil rights prosecutor and an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., before taking over Justice's civil rights division in 2009.

At Justice, he has challenged Texas and South Carolina laws requiring voters to show photo identification and sued the office of outspoken Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging that Latinos were racially profiled during a crackdown on immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

"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 say Perez has selectively enforced laws according to his political views. GOP senators have suggested that politics has guided his decisions about enforcing voting rights laws and 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.

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.

The other five nominees involved in the deal include Richard Cordray, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Fred Hochberg, whom the Senate approved Wednesday to continue leading the Export-Import Bank.

Still to be considered are 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.

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