WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee vote on Labor Secretary nominee Tom Perez was postponed hours before it was set to take place Wednesday, highlighting what appears to be a growing partisan fight over the confirmation of the former Maryland official.
Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee accused Republicans of relying on an obscure rule to delay the committee vote, which had been moved back once before. Republicans said Perez has failed to answer questions they say are critical to understanding his record.
The delay came hours after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell described Perez as a "crusading ideologue" who "appears willing, quite frankly, to say or do anything to achieve his ideological ends" and other high-profile Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also spoke out against him.
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Taken together, the maneuvering suggests the 51-year-old Takoma Park resident may face a more difficult path to confirmation than was indicated by the relatively conciliatory hearing he had in mid-April. Perez, nominated by President Barack Obama in March, is the only Hispanic named to serve in the president's second term cabinet.
Perez is the former head of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, was the first Latino to win a seat on the Montgomery County Council in 2002 and briefly ran for Maryland attorney general in 2006.
In a debate that spilled on to the Senate floor Wednesday, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate health and labor committee, blamed the delay on Republican "procedural tricks" and said Perez has been forthcoming in answering GOP concerns about his performance as the top civil rights attorney in the U.S. Justice Department.
"This pointless obstructionism is extremely disturbing," Harkin said. "There's no there there. The facts belie the belief. But it seems the belief carries on and … somehow the belief trumps the facts."
The committee vote has been moved to May 16.
Republicans have focused criticism in recent days on a case in which the Justice Department agreed to back out of a lawsuit filed against the city of St. Paul, Minn., if city leaders dropped a separate case Perez was concerned could have resulted in an adverse Supreme Court ruling. Republicans say federal taxpayers could have recovered $200 million in misspent funds if the Justice Department had pursued the case.
Others say Perez has not fully released documents Republicans have requested. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has subpoenaed emails Perez sent from his personal account that involved official business. Justice officials say Perez has complied with that request; Republicans say they are still waiting for more information.
"Mr. Perez and the administration have not yet produced all the information some senators are requesting -- troubling information that is key to the Senate's constitutional role of advice and consent," Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee lawmaker and top-ranking Republican on the Senate health and labor committee, said in a statement.
"Until those documents and answers to questions are received, it is appropriate to delay the committee's vote on Mr. Perez," he said.
Perez is ultimately expected to win approval from the committee, but the machinations have raised questions about whether he will clear a vote on the Senate floor. Some Republicans have threatened to put a hold on the confirmation, meaning Democrats would need to find 60 votes to approve Perez.
Asked about the delay and McConnell's comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration remains confident Perez will be confirmed. "He is enormously qualified," Carney said, "and there has not been a case made that is not political and partisan against his nomination."
Opposition from conservatives began soon after Perez's nomination, and some expected critics on the committee would subject Perez to an aggressive cross-examination at his April 18 hearing. But he faced only a handful of tough questions, and the relatively brief session lacked the tension or drama that defined Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing in January, for instance.
Perez's confirmation comes at a politically sensitive moment for Republicans, who have been eager to court Hispanic voters after most flocked to Democrats in the 2012 election. Latino groups have strongly backed Perez to lead the Labor Department.
But Perez is not new to confirmation battles. GOP lawmakers delayed a confirmation vote for his current position at the Justice Department for more than six months in 2009, raising many of the same concerns. In the end, he received a bipartisan vote of 72-22.
Gov. Martin O'Malley chose Perez to serve as the state's labor secretary, a job he held from 2007 until 2009. Perez used the position to implement regulations aimed at stemming the foreclosure crisis and pushed to shift oversight of adult education programs to his agency, a move that led to a turf battle with state education officials.
If confirmed, Perez would take over the department at a time when it could be key player in bipartisan plans to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Obama has also proposed raising the minimum wage.
The Harvard-educated native of Buffalo, N.Y., said during his hearing last month that he would make job creation a top priority at the department, along with enforcing wage and workplace safety laws and reauthorizing federal job training programs.
“At this critical time for our fragile economy, it is unfortunate that some have chosen to twist this fine record into something other than protecting workers in Maryland and nationwide,” Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement.