WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to the latest of President Barack Obama's seven stalled nominees as a bipartisan pact over his picks to run federal agencies seemed to be holding, though Republican grumbling was mounting.
Senators voted 82-18 on Wednesday to clear the way for confirmation of Fred Hochberg to serve a second four-year term as head of the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing for U.S. exporters. A vote on final approval was expected later in the day.
"We have now started a new era, I hope, a new normal here in the Senate" of increased bipartisan cooperation, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But a day after the agreement allowing votes on Obama's nominees was largely hailed by both parties, conservatives and other Republicans were bristling over one of the selections — Thomas Perez, Obama's pick to lead the Labor Department.
Republicans say that Perez, a top Justice Department official, mishandled a whistle-blower case against the city of St. Paul, Minn., and that he and Justice have ignored a House subpoena for his personal emails related to that case.
"What I'm saying to my Republican colleagues is, I don't care what deal you cut," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "How could you possibly agree to move forward on a nomination when the nominee refuses to comply with a congressional subpoena?"
"Why would you want somebody in the Cabinet thumbing their noses at the elected representatives of the people of this country," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, one of the chamber's senior Republicans.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Perez and the Justice Department had responded to all "reasonable requests" from Congress for information and said, "He's a professional, he listens and tries to make the right judgment."
Despite the GOP criticism, it was not clear that the bipartisan agreement was in peril.
In that deal, Republicans agreed to help Democrats get the 60 votes needed to end filibusters — prolonged procedural delays — against the seven nominees. It was possible that GOP opponents of Perez could vote to end the delays against Perez but then oppose his nomination, which would not violate the deal.
One of the bipartisan deal's chief architects, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would vote to end delays against Perez's nomination but added, "I think it's in some trouble, but I don't know how much."
In exchange, majority Democrats have dropped a threat, for now, to change Senate rules to weaken minority Republicans' powers. They had been threatening to muscle through a rules change eliminating the need to get 60 votes to free a nomination for final approval.
Roll call votes on Perez and Gina McCarthy, Obama's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, were possible this week.
The agreement averted the use of the so-called nuclear option, the nickname used to describe efforts by the Senate's majority party to unilaterally change the chamber's rules.
But the pact only addressed the seven initial nominees and left open the possibility that confrontations would emerge anew over future Obama nominations that could spark controversy, such as for federal judges or to head the Internal Revenue Service or Department of Homeland Security.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted Tuesday night, "Today, re: the so-called nuclear option, Senate Republicans preserved the right to surrender in the future."
Hochberg's selection to head the Export-Impact Bank stirred little passion. Conservatives oppose the bank, saying its federally backed loans risk taxpayers' dollars and interfere with markets. It has broad backing from the business community and Democrats.
Also Wednesday, Richard Cordray was sworn in as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director. The Senate confirmed him on Tuesday, the first of the seven stalled nominations to clear the chamber.
"I also want to thank the Senate for agreeing to give my other nominees who've waited far too long the votes that they deserve," Obama said.
As part of the resulting agreement, Obama withdrew his nominations of two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. Obama installed Griffin and Block onto the board in 2011, bypassing the Senate but triggering a legal challenge in which an appeals court has said the two appointments were invalid. Republicans were insistent that those selections be replaced.
In their places, Obama nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce.
The seventh Obama appointment involved in the bipartisan deal is Pearce.
Associated Press writer David Espo contributed to this report.