"Put this down as progress in the right direction and the best possible… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The bipartisan accord that ended a sometimes bitter Senate debate over filibusters Tuesday handed the Obama administration a significant victory, ensuring the confirmation of several major nominees and the functioning of federal agencies endangered by determined Republican opposition.
Democrats had been poised to force through a major change in Senate rules, ending the power of a minority to block executive branch nominations by threat of filibuster. Republicans had said they would respond by bringing the Senate to a halt.
The fight, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was a "near-death experience" for the Senate.
In the end, both sides backed off, but there was little doubt which won this round.
Democrats agreed not to change the rules, but reserved the right to do so later if they feel the need. In return, President Obama gained confirmation of several nominees, starting with Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The 66-34 vote on him ended a three-year effort by the GOP to block that newly created agency from fully opening for business.
The deal also calls for confirmation of Obama's choices to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department, whom Republicans had stalled on for months, as well as a new head for the Export-Import Bank. Those votes are expected later this week.
And Republicans agreed to allow confirmation by the end of this month of nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, which acts as the arbiter in disputes between labor and management in unionized workplaces. The votes will give the board a full slate of five Senate-confirmed members for the first time in nearly a decade -- since Aug. 21, 2003.
At times the board has lacked a quorum to conduct its work, a major problem for unions.
Obama agreed to drop two nominees whom he had appointed to the labor board during a Senate recess, a move that Republicans challenged in court, successfully so far. Under the deal, Obama replaced those nominees with new choices -- a lawyer for the AFL-CIO and an attorney on the labor board staff. They will receive an expedited hearing process to allow them to take office next month.
"We have a new start for this body, and I feel very comfortable with it," said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose brinkmanship over the issue of Senate filibusters appeared to have paid off. "I don't know how I could be happier."
The agreement happened after McCain and a handful of other veteran Republicans who wanted an end to the confrontation negotiated with Senate Democratic leaders separately from their own party's leadership. For most of Obama's tenure in office, such divisions within GOP ranks have seldom taken place.
The negotiations intensified after Reid announced Thursday that he intended to force the issue by calling votes on the contested nominations.
"That obviously put a sense of urgency to it," McCain said. "There was no doubt in our mind he had the votes."
"I'm not saying this is a panacea," he said. "But I am saying it will contribute to some momentum to working more together as a body for the good of the country, not to mention our 10% approval ratings."
Obama praised the Senate's commitment to advance his nominees. They were long blocked, he said, "not because the nominees were somehow unqualified, but for purely political reasons." He urged Congress to "build on this spirit of cooperation to advance other urgent middle-class priorities."
The agreement will not prevent future nomination battles, Senate leaders from both parties said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would continue to reserve the right to filibuster any future "controversial" appointments, and Reid in turn said he could go ahead with rules changes if needed.
That could be tested soon. Obama will quickly need to nominate a new secretary of Homeland Security to replace Janet Napolitano, who is leaving to head the University of California. Any pick for that department could be controversial. His choice for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also still faces strong opposition.
And on both sides, some senators were disappointed.
"It was clear last night there was an unstoppable momentum to get a deal. But I remain committed to the idea that you can't really have a fully functioning democracy with a regular supermajority requirement," said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), a first-year senator who has advocated ending filibusters in all cases.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who earlier this year spoke for nearly 13 hours on the floor against Obama's CIA director nominee, defended the filibuster as a tactic that gives senators leverage over the administration they wouldn't otherwise have. He currently has placed a hold on Obama's nominee to lead the FBI.
"The president usually wins. I've supported most of the nominees," he said. "But if it was a 51-vote margin to approve the FBI nomination, they'd never answer one of my questions."