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Senate averts 'nuclear option,' but leaves deeper questions unanswered

After a rare, closed meeting senators agreed to confirm several controversial Obama nominees. The deal avoided a 'nuclear option' that would have changed Senate rules on filibusters.

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The accord came after a rare, all-senators meeting Monday evening in the Old Senate Chamber that lasted nearly four hours. Some three dozen senators rose to speak behind the chamber's heavy doors, a rare level of direct and sustained debate for members of the "world’s greatest deliberative body."

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Afterward, many senators from both parties credited the meeting, requested by Sens. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi and Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, with showing the leadership of both parties that the rank-and-file heavily favored a compromise.

Richard Cordray was the first beneficiary of the deal. He was named director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a controversial (and possibly illegal) recess appointment in January 2012. His nomination advanced to a final Senate vote by a 71-to-29 margin on Tuesday morning.

Other nominees set to be approved include Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tom Perez to lead the Department of Labor, Fred Hochberg to direct the Export-Import Bank, and Mark Pearce to join the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Two other nominees to the NLRB previously appointed under the same circumstances as Mr. Cordray – Richard Griffin and Sharon Block – would see their nominations withdrawn in exchange for Republicans promising votes on two new NLRB nominees before the Senate adjourns for the August recess. Politico is reporting that Obama will nominate Nancy Schiffer and Kent Hirozawa. Ms. Schiffer is the associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, and Mr. Hirozawa is the chief counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce.

The issue of the NLRB is particularly important for Democrats, who feared the Senate would be unable to fix the nominations process before the board lost its quorum of members (and thus ability to act) on August 27.

Several Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, had long held that removing the two NLRB nominees from the mix would allow Republicans to agree to move the larger package of nominees.

"Our view is they were illegally, unconstitutionally appointed," says Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, "and that’s an awfully difficult thing to turn the other way on."

But the rest of the deal represented a capitulation by Senate Republicans to the wishes of Reid and Democrats. Previously, liberals raged for months that the GOP was holding up nominees to the CFPB or the EPA because it didn't like the agencies, not because it had actual complaints about the nominees.

"I don't understand why this body accepts [that] this political stalemate isn’t going to end in more government or less government, but just bad government," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts on the Senate floor Monday.

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