WASHINGTON - The Senate Tuesday failed to advance President Barack Obama's nomination of a union lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board, as the debate and vote became a test of union clout in Congress.
The vote on Craig Becker's nomination - the first controversial vote since the Senate Democrats' 60-seat majority shrank by one last week - highlighted the difficulty that Democrats will have trying to push union-friendly legislation through Congress.
Only 52 senators voted to cut off debate on the nomination, eight short of the number needed, and 33 were opposed. Many senators weren't present because of an impending snowstorm.
The president could name the former union lawyer to the board with a "recess appointment," which doesn't require confirmation, while the Senate is on its President's Day break next week.
Still, the vote signals that Obama is in for a tough time pushing labor's agenda.
"It's a statement that anything friendly to organized labor won't get through the Senate as long as Republicans stand together," said Gary Jacobson, an expert on Congress at the University of California at San Diego. "The labor wing of the Democratic Party is not going to get what they were hoping for."
Becker had served as a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO. Obama, speaking at a surprise news conference Tuesday, expressed frustration that Becker and other nominees are getting bogged down in the Senate.
"I respect the Senate's role to advise and consent, but for months, qualified, non-controversial nominees for critical positions in government, often related to our national security, have been held up despite having overwhelming support," Obama said.
He may have been alluding in part to the "hold" that Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., had placed on more than 70 nominees in a bid to drive White House attention to federal contracting issues in Alabama. Shelby released most of the holds Monday night.
Last week, senators advanced the stalled nomination of Martha Johnson, a nominee who'd been held up for months, to head the General Services Administration on a 96 to 0 vote. Senate Democrats blasted their Republican colleagues for blocking Johnson for a prolonged period, then unanimously voting for her.
Becker posed a different challenge for the White House, because of Democrats' efforts to push the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check" legislation that many Democrats have pushed hard. The legislation would make it easier for workers to form unions.
Business groups think Becker would be overly sympathetic to card check laws and to union interests in general, though he told a hearing last week that he'd "respect the will of Congress."
That wasn't good enough for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who voiced opposition to the nominee.
"Mr. Becker's previous statements strongly indicate that he would take an aggressive personal agenda to the NLRB, and that he would pursue a personal agenda there, rather than that of the administration," Nelson said. "This is of great concern, considering that the board's main responsibility is to resolve labor disputes with an even and impartial hand."
Nelson joined a chorus of Republicans.
"Card checks should not happen because an unelected bureaucracy in the National Labor Relations Board is the one to do it. Mr. Becker would have that, obviously, on his agenda," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., however, lauded Becker's background, and said, "His job is to basically interpret the law as written and to implement the law as Congress has passed it. He said repeatedly, if confirmed, he will apply the law fairly and impartially."