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WASHINGTON – A Senate committee today voted along party lines to confirm Buffalo native Thomas E. Perez as labor secretary, likely prompting a confirmation battle on the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

In a 12-10 vote, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the nomination of Perez, a longtime government lawyer who currently serves as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The nomination of Perez has prompted passionate support from backers of organized labor and equally passionate opposition from Republicans, who criticize him for his handling of cases at the Justice Department.

That passion came clear during this morning’s brief committee hearing on the Perez nomination.

“Perhaps most importantly, Tom Perez knows how to bring people together to make progress on even controversial issues, without burning bridges,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate HELP Committee. “He knows how to hit the ground running and quickly and effectively become an agent of real change. That is exactly the kind of leadership we need at the Department of Labor.”

But the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, criticized Perez for “an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing” as assistant attorney general.

Alexander complained that Perez persuaded the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing-discrimination case that it could have appealed to the Supreme Court – potentially leading to a result that would have made it harder for the government to bring such cases.

In return for that agreement, the Justice Department vowed not to join two whistle-blower cases against St. Paul that, Republicans said, could have saved $200 million for U.S. taxpayers.

Perez has said the whistleblower cases were bad ones for the Justice Department to get involved in, but Republicans said Perez overstepped his bounds in striking the deal.

“My review raised troubling questions regarding his actions at the Department of Justice, and his candor,” Alexander said. In addition “relevant and specific information has not yet been provided by the nominee or the administration.”

While the Perez nomination produced much acrimony on the committee level, his troubles could be just beginning.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has vowed to block the Perez nomination when it comes to the floor, saying that as assistant general, Perez enforced provisions of the National Voter Registration Act in Louisiana but not in other states.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com