WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called for more civility and bipartisanship at a prayer breakfast on Thursday, but Congress kept to its old ways with a party-line Senate vote on a long-stalled administration nominee and partisan barbs after another stalled nominee was overwhelmingly approved.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama renewed the plea for common ground between the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans that he made at a retreat of House Republicans last week.
"At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate," Obama said. "It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong, when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on the truth."
The plea appeared to go unheeded in the Senate. On their final day of with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, Democrats advanced the nomination of M. Patricia Smith to become the Labor Department's top lawyer on a 60-32, party line vote.
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The vote ended a months-long filibuster by Republicans who objected to her nomination because they said she gave misleading testimony last year about her involvement in creating a program in New York that allows labor unions to help uncover wage-and-hour violations by employers.
Smith conceded that she "misspoke" about her role. Senate Democrats called her misstatements minor. Republicans disagreed.
"I strongly believe that confirming someone as head legal officer for a cabinet agency under these circumstances sends the wrong message," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who placed a hold on her nomination.
While senators were divided on Smith's nomination, they had no problems Thursday in confirming Martha Johnson to become the head of the General Services Administration on what originally was a 94-2 vote.
The final tally changed to 96-0 after Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., changed their votes.
Johnson's confirmation came after Obama chided Republicans on Wednesday for holding her up since June "because of some unrelated matter." Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., had placed a hold on Johnson's nomination in July as he urged the GSA to build a new federal building in Kansas City.
The bipartisan moment surrounding Johnson's vote was brief, however. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., blasted Senate Republicans for delaying the vote for no good reason.
"After seven or eight months a very qualified candidate reported out of the committee of jurisdiction to head the GSA was blocked . . . and now gets (96) people to vote yes, which means we have a lot of people in this chamber who block things they intend to vote for later," Dorgan said on the Senate floor. "It is an unbelievable example of why this place doesn't work. A minimum amount of cooperation, in my judgment, would go a long way to helping this place work in the way it should."
Senate Republicans had their own complaint. They were upset that the Johnson and Smith votes occurred before Republican Scott Brown was sworn in to assume the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Brown, who defied political odds and defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election in Massachusetts, was administered the oath of office by Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate chamber Thursday afternoon.
Before the Smith vote, Enzi said, "I'm also particularly disappointed that such a controversial nominee is being forced through before newly elected Senator Scott Brown is sworn in."
"These kind of actions may be part of the reason public confidence in Congress in the government is so low."
Senate Republicans are looking to Brown to stop Democrats from overriding Republican maneuvers to prevent votes on legislation and nominees. His impact could be felt soon as the Senate considers Obama's nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board.
Republican senators and business groups oppose Becker, a union lawyer.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he didn't know how Brown would vote on Becker. Chambliss said doesn't expect Brown to vote along party lines on every issue, but he's still happy to have him on his side of the aisle.
"It makes me sleep at night because we have one more vote to stop bad legislation from coming out of Washington," Chambliss said.
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