A normally small confirmation hurdle turned into a more serious roadblock last week as Senate lawmakers postponed action on President Obama’s pick for labor secretary.

The Senate committee that caused the delay is scheduled to pick up where it left off on Thursday as it votes on whether to move forward with confirmation proceedings for Thomas Perez, who currently heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

At stake is the role of a Cabinet member who would enforce labor laws and potentially write certain immigration rules, depending on what happens with the ongoing negotiations over immigration reform.

Thomas Perez at a Senate committee hearing on his nomination to be Labor secretary.(EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS) Thomas Perez at a Senate committee hearing on his nomination to be Labor secretary.(EPA/Michael Reynolds)

Perez has turned out to be Obama’s most controversial second-term Cabinet pick since the president tapped former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon. The defense secretary’s confirmation proceedings dragged on for nearly two months as Republican senators toyed with the idea of a filibuster to block a final vote.

As for Perez, his nomination has drawn vastly different reactions from Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees Labor, described Perez last week as “eminently qualified” for a Cabinet post, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described him as a “committed ideologue” who ignores the law and misstates facts to push a progressive agenda.

Latino groups have cautioned Republicans against opposing Perez’s nomination, suggesting it could have grave consequences for the party trying to gain favor with a growing electorate that overwhelmingly supported Obama in the last election.

“The Hispanic community is watching this closely, and it will be noted if there is an effort to block Tom’s nomination,” said National Council of La Raza President and CEO Janet Murguia. “It’s just not helpful for Republicans to be seen as taking down what is seen as a qualified candidate.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), a Latino lawmaker who has vowed to oppose Perez’s nomination, provides the GOP with some level of cover. But it’s unclear how much his stance will resonate with fellow Hispanics.

Rubio last week issued a statement that combined criticism of Perez with backhanded compliments.

“Many Americans, especially those of us of Hispanic descent, celebrate his success and his personal story as yet another example of all that’s possible in America no matter where you or your family come from,” Rubio said. “Unfortunately, intellect and work ethic are not sufficient qualifications for a Cabinet secretary.”

The controversy over Perez stems from the nominee’s role in a Justice Department decision to abstain from assisting in a whistleblower case against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for the municipality dropping its Supreme Court challenge against housing-discrimination guidelines.

GOP lawmakers claim Perez orchestrated the agreement, which resulted in a missed opportunity to recover $200 million in federal funds awarded through “false certifications” with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to an April report from key House and Senate Republicans.

“Most alarming about this quid pro quo is the precedent that this case sets for future whistleblowers who bring claims of waste, fraud and abuse, only to be thrown under the bus for political purposes,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said last week during a House hearing on the matter.

Critics have further suggested that Perez made the deal to keep the Supreme Court from weighing in on whether certain housing-discrimination protections are permissible.

The Cabinet nominee denied personal involvement with the decision not to sue St. Paul during a previous confirmation hearing, but he acknowledged a role in the city’s decision to withdraw its Supreme Court challenge, saying the move was in the best interest of the nation and that senior Justice officials had approved it.

Those who support the deal, including a former Justice attorney who testified on the matter during the contentious House hearing last week, have said there is nothing unusual about taking the broader interests of the nation into account in such circumstances.

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