WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed President Barack Obama's choice for general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, writing the last chapter in a Capitol Hill spat that nearly shut down the federal agency earlier this year.
Richard Griffin, who was nominated by the president in August, passed by a vote of 55 to 44, along party lines. Once Griffin assumes his post at the board, which is tasked with enforcing labor law on companies and unions, it will mark the first time in more than three years that the agency's general counsel was acting with Senate approval.
A former general counsel at the International Union of Operating Engineers, Griffin will serve a four-year term functioning as the lead prosecutor at the board, spearheading investigations and bringing charges of unfair labor practices. Rulings at the quasi-judicial agency are made by a separate panel of five board members nominated by the president. Griffin himself served as a board member under recess appointment before he was nominated for general counsel.
Griffin will replace Lafe Solomon, who's served as acting general counsel since 2010.
If not for a filibuster deal hashed out between Senate Democrats and Republicans this summer, it's unlikely Griffin or any other Obama nominee would have been confirmed to the general counsel post.
Republicans in Congress have assailed the labor board for the union-friendly rules and decisions issued in the Obama era. With Senate Republicans using the filibuster to block board members' confirmations, and with the board functioning solely because of Obama's recess appointments, it was possible the agency would go dark when one board member's term expired at the end of August -- killing the board's quorum and making it unable to issue decisions.
Facing pressure from unions, Democrats threatened to change Senate rules on Republicans in order to push through the president's nominees not just to the labor board, but also to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other federal agencies stymied by obstructionism. As part of a deal struck to avert such a scenario, Republicans agreed to let Obama's board nominees proceed.
But the deal required that two of Obama's nominees -- both of whom were already on the board under recess appointments deemed invalid by a federal appeals court -- step down. One of those board nominees was Griffin, whose nomination was subsequently withdrawn.
Although it looked like Griffin was being thrown under the proverbial bus, Senate Democrats and the White House were arranging to have him take the high-profile general counsel slot. Obama's nominees to the board eventually got their approval from the Senate, leading to the first fully confirmed labor board in more than a decade.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said that he wouldn't block the Griffin nomination, but he also said that he didn't have to like it. Not surprisingly, some Republicans aren't thrilled about a former union lawyer taking the general counsel position.
"I'm concerned about the direction of the National Labor Relations Board as an advocate more than an umpire. I don't think [Griffin's] presence as general counsel will improve that situation," Alexander said. "What I hope we can do over next several years is look for a long-term solution for the restructuring of the National Labor Relations Board ... The board has become far too politicized."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), however, called Griffin "eminently qualified" for the post in a statement before Tuesday's vote.
"With a fully-functional, five-member board and a Senate-confirmed General Counsel, it is my hope that we can provide this important agency with some much-needed certainty, mark a new positive chapter for the NLRB, and finally put an end to the delay and obstruction that has recently become all too familiar," Harkin said.