Senate confirms D.C. Circuit nominee, first under new Senate rules

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted 56-38 Tuesday to seat Patricia Millett on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the first confirmation under new Senate filibuster rules and one that gives the influential panel a majority of Democratic-nominated judges for the first time in nearly three decades.

Previously, the confirmation of Millett, along with those of two other nominees President Obama named to the court this past summer, had been blocked by Republican filibusters. Two weeks ago, the Senate’s Democratic majority used her stalled nomination as the basis to change long-standing Senate rules by lowering the voting threshold needed to advance presidential nominations -- a step so dramatic it has been dubbed the “nuclear option.”

Until then, the Senate’s minority party could block any presidential nomination from advancing unless there were 60 votes to cut off a filibuster. Democrats say they were forced to make the historic rules change -- which now applies to all nominees except those to the Supreme Court -- after Republicans engaged in unprecedented obstruction of Obama nominees.


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Republicans bitterly opposed the step, warning Democrats that they would come to regret it when they lose control of the chamber. The coming weeks will test the extent to which Republicans use remaining procedural tools that could still delay Senate proceedings.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, called the rules change “the most stunning development in the history of the United States Senate.”

“The goal was to help the administration and the Democratic majority advance its radical agenda unchecked through the courts and the executive agencies,” Alexander said in an extended floor speech Monday evening. “If there is no integrity to the rules of the Senate, there is no integrity to the Senate.”

Senate Democrats are set to spend much of the next two weeks, the chamber’s last scheduled work period before breaking for the Christmas holiday, clearing a backlog of nominations, some routine but others fiercely opposed by Republicans.

Immediately after the Millett vote, the Senate was set to hold a procedural vote on the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans oppose Watt, arguing that the job is more suited for a technocrat than a political appointee.

Jeh Johnson, Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, could also receive a confirmation vote this week. Key Republicans have backed Johnson, a former Pentagon counsel.

Democrats are also expected to advance Obama’s two remaining nominees to the D.C. Circuit court. When finished, judges appointed by Democratic presidents will hold a 7-4 majority.

Republican-appointed judges have held the majority of seats on the panel since 1987, according to the Alliance for Justice, a progressive group that tracks judicial nominations.

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