WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Thursday to approve President Barack Obama's nomination of former utility executive John Bryson to head the Commerce Department, easily overcoming conservatives' objections that his pro-environmental views made him unsuited for the job.
The chamber's 74-26 vote came five months after Obama chose the former head of Edison International, the holding company that owns Southern California Edison, to head the agency. Bryson has also served on boards of major corporations including the Boeing Co. and the Walt Disney Co.
Twenty-one Republicans joined all 51 Democrats and two independents in backing Bryson, while 26 Republicans voted no.
Bryson's nomination had become entangled in the dispute between Obama and Republicans over free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama when some GOP lawmakers said they would block his approval until the president sent those pacts to Congress. The House and Senate approved those pacts last week.
Since Obama announced his choice of Bryson, unemployment has been stuck at around 9.1 percent and the public mood about the economy has been gloomy – a dangerous combination for the president and his party with Election Day for control of the White House and Congress barely more than a year off.
"At such a critical time for our economy, I nominated John because I believe his decades of experience both in the public and private sector have given him a clear understanding of what it takes to put America on a stronger economic footing and create jobs," Obama said in a written statement after the vote. "I'm confident he will help us do that."
Bryson, 68, was a co-founder four decades ago of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has supported cap-and-trade legislation, which would set an overall cap on pollution and allow companies to buy and sell the right to produce emissions. Many conservatives oppose the proposal, saying it adds costs to businesses.
The selection of Bryson shows that Obama "has no intention of backing down on his job-killing war on affordable energy," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of Bryson's fiercest opponents. Inhofe called the Natural Resources Defense Council "one of the most radical, left-wing, extreme environmental groups."
Bryson won solid backing from Democrats like Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who praised his business background at a time of 9.1 percent unemployment and said, "We need all the good people we can get."
Bryson also won support from some more moderate Republicans like John McCain of Arizona, whom Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential race.
"Elections do have consequences," said McCain. He said he wouldn't have nominated Bryson, but said senators should not block presidents from appointing top cabinet officials except for rare occasions "when that individual is not fit to serve."
"I don't think you could really question Mr. Bryson's credentials and background," McCain said.
Bryson was supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which applauded his business background. He will succeed Gary Locke, who left to become ambassador to China.