WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate stepped away from the brink of a meltdown on Tuesday, confirming one of President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominees, agreeing to quick action on others and finessing a Democrat threat to overturn historic rules that protect minority-party rights.
"Nobody wants to come to Armageddon here," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat whose talks with Arizona Republican John McCain were critical in avoiding a collision that had threatened to plunge the Senate even deeper into partisan gridlock.
McCain, a veteran of uncounted legislative face-offs, told reporters that forging the deal was "probably the hardest thing I've been involved in."
The White House reaped the first fruits of the deal within hours, when Richard Cordray's nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was approved 66-34. He was first nominated in July 2011 and has been in office by virtue of a recess appointment that bypassed the Senate.
All West Virginia and Ohio senators voted to confirm the nomination.
In a written statement, Obama said he was pleased by the developments and that he hoped Congress would "build on this spirit of cooperation" to pass immigration legislation and rein in interest rates on student loans, among other measures.
As part of Tuesday's agreement, both parties preserved their rights to resume combat over nominations in the future, Republicans by delaying votes and Democrats by threatening once again to change the rules governing such delays.
Still, officials in both parties said they hoped the deal would signal a new, less acrimonious time for the Senate, with critical decisions ahead on spending, the government's borrowing authority, student loan interest rates and more.
Under the agreement, several of seven stalled nominees would win confirmation later in the week, including Labor Secretary-designate Tom Perez; Gina McCarthy, named to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Fred Hochberg to head of the Export-Import Bank.
Even before the agreement was ratified by the rank and file, Cordray's long-stalled nomination to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau advanced toward approval on a test vote of 71-29, far more than the 60 required.
Two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Clark, are to be replaced by new selections, submitted quickly by Obama and steered toward speedy consideration by Senate Republicans. Obama installed Griffin and Clark in their posts by recess appointments in 2011, bypassing the Senate but triggering a legal challenge. An appeals court recently said the two appointments were invalid, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case.
In their places, Obama nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said their appointments would be reviewed and voted on in committee on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, and then come before the Senate for confirmation the following day.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she had urged others to "look ahead and think about the time when we would have a Republican president with Republican Senate and there could be someone appointed who was completely unacceptable to my Democratic colleagues and was nominated to run their favorite program." She said she asked if they "really want to give away their right to filibuster that individual."