As Senate Republicans delay consideration of Thomas Perez's nomination to be Labor Secretary for yet another week, it raises a question: Could the campaign to block Perez's appointment damage the GOP's standing with Latinos?
At this point, it's too early to tell, especially now that the immigration reform bill has taken center stage on Capitol Hill. Also, the fact that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) just came out against Perez, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division, makes it easier for other Republicans to block the one Hispanic President Obama has nominated for his second-term Cabinet.
Still, Republicans face clear risks in fighting against Perez, a first-generation Dominican American who has cultivated strong ties with civil rights groups across the country.
"Tom Perez has broad and deep support in the Latino community," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, in an interview, adding that when it comes to the GOP's standing among Hispanics, "It’s just not helpful for Republicans to be seen as taking down what is seen as a qualified candidate."
Senate Republicans initially objected to Perez's handling of a few specific civil rights cases, charging among other things that he agreed not to assist in a whistleblower complaint against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for the city dropping its Supreme Court challenge of housing-discrimination guidelines.
But now some senators, including Rubio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are suggesting he's so ideological Perez is unfit for the Cabinet. In a floor speech Wednesday, McConnell blasted Perez for, among other things, his attempt while serving on the Montgomery County Council to import Canadian drugs in violation of federal law.
“He is a committed ideologue who appears willing, quite frankly, to say or do anything to achieve his ideological ends," McConnell said. “His willingness, time and again, to bend or ignore the law and to misstate the facts in order to advance his far-left ideology lead me and others to conclude that he’d continue to do so if he were confirmed to another, and much more consequential, position of public trust."
Rubio said in a statement that Perez "appears to have engaged in selective and politically motivated applications of the law," adding that while Perez clearly represents an immigrant success story, "Unfortunately, intellect and work ethic are not sufficient qualifications for a cabinet secretary."
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, said he is skeptical that an inside-the-beltway battle over a Labor Secretary nominee will influence the public perception of where Republicans stand on Hispanic issues.
"Latino voters are paying a lot more attention to immigration reform and what happens to that than a nomination to a Cabinet post in a Cabinet that has not played a major role with this president," Bolger said in an interview. "This is a much, much smaller factor in how voters perceive the GOP than what Republicans in the House and Senate do on immigration."
Latino groups aim to prove otherwise. Hector Sanchez, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, said his coalition of 34 organizations "can put pressure on the ground" through dozens of affiliates. The group has launched an online campaign on Perez's behalf and is generating op-ed letters in local papers as well as e-mails and phone calls. At the moment, Sanchez said, Hispanics "are really getting the message again the Republicans are not taking any serious steps to embrace the Latino vote."
The National Council of La Raza, moreover, has teamed up with affiliates to target states such as Illinois, Tennessee and Utah to pressure Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans.
Either way, the Perez nomination has set off an extended political battle. White House spokesman Jay Carney criticized Senate Republicans Wednesday, saying, "Regrettably some Republicans on the Hill are politicizing this nomination."
And McConnell spokesman Don Stewart made it clear in an e-mail that Senate GOP leaders are not backing down. "As to the fight itself, he’s not even out of committee yet, but there will not be unanimous consent to fast track his nomination," Stewart wrote.