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Top Senate Republican opposes Obama labor nominee Perez

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (C) holds a news conference with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington April 9, 2013. REUT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (C) holds a news conference with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington April 9, 2013. REUT

By Rachelle Younglai and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate's top Republican on Wednesday came out strongly against President Barack Obama's nominee for labor secretary, accusing Thomas Perez of being a crusading ideologue who would bend the laws to advance his agenda.

Perez's nomination must be confirmed by the Senate and the speech from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggests that Republicans will throw up procedural hurdles to prevent him from serving as the Obama administration's next labor secretary.

"Unbound by the rules that apply to everyone else, Mr. Perez seems to view himself as free to employ whatever means at his disposal, legal or otherwise, to achieve his ideological goals," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Perez, 51, is currently head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and has worked on civil rights issues in a series of government positions during his career.

McConnell's speech was designed to rally his members to oppose the nomination, and it provides cover for other Republicans who may be thinking about opposing Obama's pick, said George Washington University's Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress.

"I think it matters that it is Mitch McConnell here, laying the marker down on why he's opposing the nominee," Binder said.

The Oversight Committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives also has issues with Perez and has subpoenaed private emails he used to conduct government business.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings joined Republicans on Wednesday in asking Perez to turn over the documents. A spokeswoman for Cummings was not immediately available to explain the lawmaker's reasons.

LATINO SUCCESS STORY

Obama has described Perez's career as exemplifying the American success story. Perez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, helped pay for college by working as a garbage collector and in a warehouse.

The nomination was championed by Hispanic groups, which have pushed for more representation in the Cabinet.

As labor secretary, he would have a key role in Obama's efforts to raise the minimum wage and overhaul immigration laws.

Republicans allege that Perez entered into a quid pro quo deal with St. Paul, Minnesota, in which he got the city to withdraw a Supreme Court appeal in exchange for the department not filing charges alleging St. Paul had filed false claims in a government funding application.

Perez denies the allegation.

On Wednesday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio - a Hispanic often touted as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 - also said he thought Perez would be a "disastrous" choice.

"Many Americans, especially those of us of Hispanic descent, celebrate his success and his personal story," Rubio said in a statement. "Unfortunately, intellect and work ethic are not sufficient qualifications for a cabinet secretary."

SECOND DELAY FOR VOTE

The Senate Health and Labor Committee had been scheduled to vote on Perez's nomination on Wednesday. But Republicans invoked an obscure rule that prevents committees from meeting when the Senate is in session.

The committee is expected to hold the vote on May 16, marking the second time the panel has had to reschedule the vote due to Republican maneuvers. Although Obama's Democrats control the Senate 55-45, they would need 60 votes to clear a procedural roadblock.

The Health and Labor Committee chairman, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, said he has given Republicans ample time to vet Perez and said his colleagues were now delaying the vote for "delay's sake."

The White House accused Republicans of "politicizing" the nomination but brushed off concerns Perez would be blocked.

"He's enormously qualified and there has not been a case made that is not political and partisan against his nomination, and we hope and expect the Senate will move forward," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Two of Obama's other Cabinet picks, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, had tough confirmations but eventually succeeded.

Obama has had a difficult time getting Senate approval for his Cabinet choices compared to his predecessors, Binder said. Previous presidents have rarely had to meet a 60-vote threshold to secure a confirmation, whereas Republicans have made that "the new norm" for Obama.

"There's no doubt that many nominations are killed by being drawn out and wearing down the nominee," Binder said, explaining that the longer the delay until a vote, the more time opposition can "fester and grow."

(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Eric Walsh and Eric Beech)

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