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."
Cornyn said the D.C. appeals court is underworked and said he would support moving some of its positions to other, busier federal court districts.
Asked by reporters if he would consider changing Senate rules if Millett was blocked, Reid said, "I'm not going to be talking about hypotheticals."
But New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, wouldn't rule it out in a brief interview, saying, "Have to see, have to see."
Millett, an attorney in private practice, has argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court and previously served as an assistant U.S. solicitor general under Presidents Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican.
After months of Democratic accusations that Republicans were stalling Obama's efforts to fill key vacancies, the two parties reached a deal in July in which some GOP senators agreed to free several key nominees for votes. In exchange, Democrats agreed to drop a threatened effort to weaken the minority party's legislative powers.
As part of that deal, Obama removed Griffin as an NLRB board member, but he was to be given the general counsel slot, according to participants in that bargaining. The general counsel, who holds a four-year term, investigates and prosecutes cases before the board.
Republicans said this week that they were opposing Griffin, a Democrat and longtime labor lawyer, because the NLRB has become too pro-union. The agency's general counsel investigates and prosecutes cases before the board.
Watt seemed a longshot to win approval. Obama wants him to head the housing agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the huge government-controlled companies that own or guarantee about half of U.S. mortgages. They say the longtime congressional veteran lacks the technical expertise to head the agency and won't be politically impartial, charges Democrats deny.
The Senate planned votes on other nominations this week, some of which have seen GOP opposition fade. All were expected to succeed. They were:
• Alan Estevez for a top Pentagon procurement job.
• Katherine Archuleta to lead the Office of Personnel Management, which helps oversee federal workers.
• Jacob Lew, the treasury secretary, to represent the U.S. at several international financial organizations.