WASHINGTON — Democrats overwhelmed outnumbered Republicans and pushed a pair of President Barack Obama’s high-profile nominees through the Senate on Tuesday, the first to win confirmation since the chamber weakened the age-old filibuster.
By 56-38, senators confirmed attorney Patricia Millett to join the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Her 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 used a 57-41 roll call to confirm Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That bureau oversees the two giant taxpayer-owned home lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Watt’s approval came after Democrats took advantage of the eased rules for ending filibusters and halted GOP delays that had blocked his nomination since Obama announced it in May.
Democrats planned to then begin a series of procedural votes on the nomination of attorney Cornelia “Nina” Pillard for another vacancy on the D.C. circuit.
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, 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.
The nomination fight is intensifying at the start of what Reid has planned as a final two-week stretch before adjourning for the year. During that time he wants approval of an emerging budget deal, a huge defense bill and perhaps other measures.
Reid also wants the Senate to confirm three other major Obama nominees.
They are U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, who with Pillard would fill the two remaining D.C. circuit vacancies; Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve and Johnson.
All are expected to win approval.
Millett works in the Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump, one of the capital’s largest law firms. A Harvard Law School graduate, she served as an assistant to the solicitor general under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court.
Two Republicans joined Democrats in confirming her Tuesday: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
Obama praised Millett’s confirmation, saying in a statement, “I’m confident she will serve with distinction on the federal bench.”
Watt has been a major target of Republicans, who say he is not qualified to lead the housing regulatory agency. Democrats say Republicans fear that Watt, a 21-year veteran of the House Financial Services Committee, will be too liberal.
Fannie and Freddie were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 as both struggled to survive under the weight of mortgage loans that had gone bad. The two companies own or guarantee about half of all U.S. mortgages, worth about $5 trillion.
During the recent financial crisis, the government provided them with taxpayer aid totaling $187 billion. As the housing market has recovered, both have become profitable and have repaid $146 billion.
Members of both political parties want to wind down both Fannie and Freddie in hopes of reducing taxpayers’ risks. Republicans generally want federal regulators to force both companies to focus more on profitability, while Democrats want them to make housing loans more affordable for consumers.
Watt would replace Edward DeMarco, appointed by Bush.