WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate approved President Barack Obama's picks for top posts at the Federal Communications Commission and National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, but the chamber approached showdowns over other nominees that were starting to revive the partisan rancor a similar fight ignited last summer.
By unanimous consent, senators approved campaign fundraiser and former lobbyist Thomas Wheeler as chairman of the FCC after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ended a procedural blockade of the nomination. Cruz had complained previously that Wheeler had been unclear about whether the FCC could force nonprofit groups to reveal information about political contributors. But Cruz said Wheeler told him at a meeting Tuesday that doing so was not a priority, so he ended his objections to Wheeler.
Wheeler, who has led both the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association and the National Cable Television Association, will now lead the agency that oversees the telecommunications industry. The last FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, announced his resignation in March.
The Senate also voted by unanimous consent to approve Michael O'Rielly to become an FCC commissioner. Obama picked O'Rielly, a longtime congressional aide, for a Republican seat on the five-member commission.
In a key roll call earlier in the day, senators voted 62-37 to end Republican delaying tactics against Richard Griffin, whom Obama nominated to be NLRB general counsel. Senators then confirmed the appointment on a near-party line 55-44 tally.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., planned votes in coming days aimed at halting what he said were GOP roadblocks against five other nominations. The most controversial were Obama's picks of Patricia Millett to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which was developing into a key flashpoint, and Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Republicans said Reid and Obama were trying to tilt the partisan balance of the D.C. appeals court's judges, now 4-4, toward Democrats with Millett's nomination. That court, which gets involved in many cases involving federal regulations, is considered by many to be the second most powerful federal court, behind only the Supreme Court.
"The majority leader and his allies are attempting to pack the court with judges who will rubber stamp their big government agenda," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's No. 2 GOP leader.
Besides Millett, Obama has also nominated attorney and law professor Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins to fill the D.C. appeals court's three vacancies.
Cornyn said unless Millett was approved, Democrats were threatening anew to use the so-called nuclear option, or unilaterally changing Senate rules to make the minority party — currently Republicans — less powerful. He said Democrats want Republicans "simply to snap to attention and salute smartly. Well, it's not going to happen."