In a rebuke to the White House, Senate Republicans blocked two of President Barack Obama's nominations on the floor, reviving a threat from Democrats to change the rules for dealing with filibusters.
The Senate voted not to consider the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency following resistance from Republicans over his qualifications.
That opposition led to a 56-42 vote — four votes short of the 60 needed — against moving the nomination process to a final debate and floor vote on Obama's nominee to replace Edward J. DeMarco, who has been acting director since 2009.
Less than an hour later, Republicans blocked Washington lawyer Patricia Millett, the first of Obama's three nominations to vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered the nation's second most influential because it hears appeals of federal regulatory cases.
The vote on her nomination was 55-38. Three Republican senators voted "present."
The two rejections threaten to reignite the battle over presidential nominations. "This is a war on the other two branches of government and their ability to do the jobs the American people need them to do," Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement after the votes. "The Senate rules must change."
In a statement, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called on Republicans to end their "continued run of unprecedented obstructionism." With more filibusters, "something has to change and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation," he said.
Earlier this year, Reid threatened to change the rules on nominations, which now require 60 votes, so that some would only need a simple majority of 51 votes to be considered.
Already, two other nomination fights are brewing in the Senate. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has said he will put a hold on the nomination of Janet Yellen for Federal Reserve chairman until he gets assurance there will be a vote on legislation requiring a public audit of the central bank, including decision-making on monetary policy.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham has said he will block all nominations until survivors of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, testify before Congress.
In the Millett debate, Republicans didn't dispute her qualifications as a litigator with significant appellate experience. They contended the court didn't have enough work to justify filling three vacancies and that her nomination was part of Obama's plan to "pack" the court with judges more likely to uphold rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory agencies.
The two filibusters ended a 3½-month truce that had averted a showdown over Reid's threat to curb filibusters against executive-branch nominations.
The bipartisan agreement worked out in July allowed for Senate votes to confirm Thomas E. Perez as secretary of the Labor Department, Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator and Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It also allowed Obama to fill vacancies that had crippled the operation of the National Labor Relations Board.
Arizona Republican John McCain, who helped broker the July deal, voted against considering both nominations today.
Obama is pushing to add judges to the appeals court because he and Senate Democrats "don't want any meaningful check on the president," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a floor speech. The Republican-run House provides such a check, he said, "but the administration can circumvent that with aggressive agency rule-making" if the D.C. Circuit "allows it to do so."
Democrats scoffed at the Republican argument about the court's workload, saying it was concocted for partisan reasons to prevent Obama from naming more judges to the court.
Only one judge nominated by Obama sits on the court, Sri Srinivasan. He was confirmed unanimously in May. Several weeks later, Obama nominated Millett, Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins, a federal trial-court judge in Washington to fill the court's three vacancies.
Millett was nominated to fill the seat previously held by John Roberts, who became chief justice in 2005, two years after he was confirmed to the appellate court. The seat has been vacant since then.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Senate Republicans confirmed four of his nominations — including that of Roberts — to the D.C. Circuit. "President Obama is being treated differently than President Bush was," Leahy said in a floor speech.
Two Republicans who voted to consider Millett's nomination, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, suggested a possible compromise on the three appeals-court nominations.
Yesterday, Collins said she had "raised the issue" with Obama. She told reporters that under this scenario, the Senate would confirm Millett and pass a revised version of legislation sponsored by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley to eliminate the two other vacancies.
Grassley's current bill would cap the number of judges on the D.C. Circuit at its current level of eight, eliminating all three vacancies.
Murkowski said she didn't agree that confirming Millett would amount to "court stacking" if the other two seats are transferred to other courts, as Grassley's bill would do.
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, said Democrats weren't interested in such a compromise. He said Reid may seek votes next month on both Millett and Watt.
The vote on Millett followed the Senate's action on Watt's nomination as director of the FHFA. The agency oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage financiers that have operated under U.S. conservatorship since they were seized amid losses in 2008.
According to the Senate Library, the last time the Senate failed to confirm a member of Congress for an important executive-branch post was in 1843, when the chamber rejected the nomination of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts congressman, as Treasury secretary.
The White House began a push this week to get Watt confirmed. National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and other administration officials met Oct. 28 with housing industry representatives at the White House and asked for their help finding the needed votes. At the same time, two influential small-government groups, Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, said they would include the Watt vote in their legislative scorecards.
Republicans have criticized Watt's past support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and his qualifications for the job. Watt, 68, has served in Congress since 1992. Republican resistance to the nomination has centered on a view that the leadership of FHFA is better suited to a person with technical, rather than political, expertise. Watt, a lawyer, has advocated forcing Fannie and Freddie to reduce the principal on troubled outstanding mortgages to assist homeowners, a position opposed by Republicans.
The filibusters capped a week in which Obama won confirmation of five other nominees whose appointments had languished on the Senate calendar for as long as six months. They included the nominations of Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to the International Monetary Fund's board of governors and of Thomas Wheeler as Federal Communications Commission chairman. Wheeler's nomination was approved unanimously after Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz lifted a hold on the appointment.
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