WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked President Barack Obama’s picks for a powerful federal court and a housing regulatory agency, prompting Democrats to threaten curtailing the GOP’s ability to derail nominations.
“Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the votes.
In a setback for the president, Republicans derailed his picks of Patricia Millett to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The Senate voted 55-38 to end the delays against Millett and 56-42 to end the blockade against Watt – falling shy each time of the 60 votes Democrats needed to prevail.
The defeats immediately subjected Democratic leaders to pressure from liberal groups and newer Democratic senators to change Senate rules that let the minority party – currently Republicans – force the majority to muster 60 votes on controversial nominations, instead of a simple majority.
Said freshman Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., “The conversation on rules changes can’t come fast enough for me.” He called the GOP procedural hurdles “a government shutdown by another tactic.”
No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said he doubted Democrats would act on their threats, which they’d been hinting at for days.
He said if Democrats change the rules and Republicans win the White House and Senate, “Then we could confirm another Scalia, another Thomas with 51 votes,” a reference to conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. “So I think they need to think twice, and I think they understand that.”
The Millett defeat was particularly stinging for Democrats.
The D.C. circuit court issues decisions on White House and federal agency actions and is considered second in power only to the Supreme Court. Millett’s confirmation would have produced a 5-4 tilt among that court’s judges toward those chosen by Democratic presidents.
Millett, now a prominent private attorney, was an assistant solicitor general under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Republicans said the D.C. circuit court’s workload was lighter than other districts and didn’t merit filling any of its three vacancies. They also said Democrats want to turn that court into a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies.
Democrats say caseload totals for the D.C. circuit are close to its 10-year average. They also say that when the GOP held the White House, Republicans voted to fill the D.C. court’s ninth seat with John Roberts, now the chief justice of the U.S.