By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday confirmed Thomas Perez as the Obama administration's new labor secretary, despite deep opposition from Republicans who accused him of bending the laws to advance a liberal agenda.
Senators voted 54-46 along party lines to confirm Perez, who is currently assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division and has long experience working on immigration and civil rights issues.
President Barack Obama nominated Perez on March 18 to replace Hilda Solis, who resigned. Republicans have been holding up a vote on Perez for months.
As labor secretary, the 51-year old Perez will oversee the country's labor laws and employment benefits as well as the collection of jobs data.
Perez will be the only Latino to serve in Obama's second-term Cabinet so far and is expected to play an important role in the administration's push to rewrite immigration laws and give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Hispanic groups threw their weight behind Perez, who briefly worked as a garbage collector and whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Many of the groups have been urging the administration to consider more Hispanics for high-level positions.
"We believe that the administration's leadership should reflect the diversity of the country," said Rafael Collazo, director of political campaigns for the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza.
The group praised Perez for his "unwavering commitment" to civil rights and said millions of Hispanics have benefited from his work.
Republicans had tried to block Perez's nomination, saying he was too political and aggressive on immigration issues.
After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to stop Republicans from using procedural moves to block the president's choices for executive branch jobs, they eventually allowed the Senate to proceed with his confirmation and other nominees.
On Wednesday, six Republicans helped Democrats reach the 60 votes required to advance Perez's nomination. But on Thursday, those Republicans, along with the other 40 Senate Republicans, voted against Perez. The confirmation only required 51 votes.
"Tom Perez is more than just some left-wing ideologue. He's a left-wing ideologue who appears perfectly willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said before voting against Perez.
Republicans say Perez persuaded the city of St. Paul, Minnesota to withdraw a Fair Housing Act case from the U.S. Supreme Court in exchange for the Justice Department backing off from a separate legal claim against the city.
Perez denies the allegations.
The Senate this week also confirmed Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and backed Fred Hochberg for a second term as president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Later on Thursday, the chamber is expected to move toward approving Gina McCarthy as the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Vicki Allen)