WASHINGTON (AP) - A divided Senate confirmed Thomas Perez on Thursday to become secretary of labor, elevating the son of Dominican immigrants who as a top Justice Department official won praise from Democrats for aggressively enforcing civil rights laws and criticism from Republicans for being a liberal ideologue.
Thursday's party-line, 54-46 vote marked the third major vacancy in President Barack Obama's second-term leadership team that the Senate has filled in three days. The sudden movement followed this week's bipartisan deal in which Republicans agreed to end blockades against votes on seven nominations and Democrats shelved efforts to change Senate rules to weaken the minority GOP's powers.
Perez, 51, is a Buffalo, N.Y., native who once worked as a trash collector. Since earning a Harvard University law degree, his career has included stints as a Justice Department civil rights prosecutor and an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., before taking over Justice's civil rights division in 2009.
At Justice, he has challenged Texas and South Carolina laws requiring voters to show photo identification and sued the office of outspoken Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging that Latinos were racially profiled during a crackdown on immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
"He has spent his career fighting for working families, protecting our important civil rights laws and turning around troubled agencies," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Republicans say Perez has selectively enforced laws according to his political views. GOP senators have suggested that politics has guided his decisions about enforcing voting rights laws and accused him of supporting efforts to sidestep federal immigration laws when he was a local government official in Maryland.
"Tom Perez is more than just some left-wing ideologue - he's a left-wing ideologue who appears perfectly willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the vote, the Senate began debating Gina McCarthy's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted narrowly to end a filibuster against Perez. All but six Republicans voted against Perez - the exact number of GOP senators that majority Democrats needed to muster the 60 votes required to end the delaying tactic against Perez's nomination.
That 60-40 vote was the closest senators have come to unwinding this week's deal between the two parties that has averted all-out partisan warfare over nominations and Senate rules. That roll call seemed to signal that while GOP leaders would deliver the votes needed to honor the bipartisan agreement, numerous Republicans were rankled by the pact and unhappy with Perez.
McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA's air pollution office, has helped craft rules aimed at reducing pollutants from power plants and other sources. Republicans have long criticized the agency for championing overly restrictive regulations that they say kill jobs.
Last week, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, top Republican on the Senate environment committee, said he was dropping efforts to delay McCarthy's nomination after the EPA agreed to release more information about how it makes decisions. McCarthy has also faced opposition from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., because of delays to a flood control project.
The other five nominees involved in the deal include Richard Cordray, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Fred Hochberg, whom the Senate approved Wednesday to continue leading the Export-Import Bank.
Still to be considered are labor lawyers Nancy Schiffer and Kent Hirozawa to join the National Labor Relations Board and NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, whom Obama wants to keep in the role.