WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time since they weakened the age-old filibuster, Democrats pushed one of President Barack Obama’s high-profile nominees through the Senate on Tuesday and cleared the way for another.
By a vote of 56-38, senators confirmed attorney Patricia Millett to join the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Millett’s approval tilts that circuit’s judges 5-4 toward those appointed by Democratic presidents, an important advantage for a court that rules on White House and federal agency actions.
The Senate then voted 57-40 to end Republican delaying tactics that for months have blocked a vote on Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who Obama wants to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Final approval of Watt was expected quickly so he can head the bureau that oversees the two giant taxpayer-owned home lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The votes came nearly three weeks after Democrats overpowered Republicans and made it harder for the Senate minority party — currently the GOP — to use filibusters, or procedural delays, to block nominations.
Filibusters for nearly all nominations, but not legislation, can now be ended by a simple majority vote instead of the 60 required since 1975. For decades before that, an even bigger margin, two-thirds, was needed to halt the delays.
Democrats and their allies hailed Tuesday’s votes as a triumph, with more to come.
“The minority caucus has dedicated the last five years to paralyzing the Senate,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., among a cadre of newer Democratic senators who helped push party leaders to change filibusters. “Today I saw as a good sign.”
Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of labor and liberal groups, called Millett’s approval “a major breakthrough” but added, “It is only through the lens of the dysfunctional Senate norms of recent years that Patricia Millett’s confirmation qualifies as a significant step forward for the U.S. Senate.”
In retaliation for the filibuster changes, Republicans used the Senate’s own procedures Tuesday to slow its work, and said they would continue doing so.
They forced three procedural votes before Watt’s nomination could be pushed ahead. They also blocked permission — usually granted routinely — for a pair of committees to meet for more than two hours while the Senate was in session.
“It says that what they’ve done is wrong and there’s a price to be paid for that,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said of the GOP response. “These are not itty bitty problems.”
“For the president and his enablers in Congress, the ends now clearly justify the means,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “And that’s a very dangerous place for us to be.”
With Republicans talking about using all the debate time that Senate rules allow on nominations, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has threatened to hold evening and weekend sessions.
“It’d be fine with me,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said he would support delaying nominees he hadn’t been able to scrutinize, including Jeh Johnson, Obama’s pick to lead the Homeland Security Department.