Senate confirms Patricia Millett, Mel Watt using new majority rules

December 10, 2013

President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 4, 2013, to announce the nomination of Patricia A. Millett, right, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

This item has been updated.

Democrats successfully utilized new Senate rules Tuesday to confirm one of President Obama’s picks to serve on a key federal court and another to lead a federal housing agency.

Several more votes to confirm new federal judges and agency leaders are expected in the coming days, further cementing an historic change in Senate rules enacted in recent weeks.

Under new rules requiring just a majority of senators to agree to proceed to final debate on most confirmation votes, senators voted Tuesday morning 56 to 38 to confirm Patricia A. Millett to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Later, senators confirmed Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) 57 to 41 to serve as the next head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency,which regulates mortgage giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and federal home loan banks.

Millett will be the first of three picks by Obama to join what is broadly considered the second-most important federal court in the nation because it handles cases regarding federal regulations.

Two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — joined with all members of the Senate Democratic caucus present to confirm Millett.

Obama, traveling home from South Africa where he attended a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, in a statement thanked lawmakers for approving Millett with bipartisan support and said he is confident she "will serve with distinction" on the court.

Watt’s confirmation came Tuesday evening as he also was flying back from South Africa as a member of the congressional delegation that attended the memorial service for Mandela. Two Republicans — Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — voted with members of the Senate Democratic caucus to confirm him.

Earlier in the day, senators had voted to invoke cloture on Watt's nomination, the first time that the chamber had agreed to proceed to final debate on an executive branch nominee with a simple majority vote.

Tuesday's confirmation votes were the first of several planned in the coming days before the Senate adjourns next week.  As early as Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to call votes on Obama's two other nominees to serve on the D.C. appeals court, Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and Robert Wilkins. The appointments will change the ideological makeup of the court dramatically, giving Democrats a three-seat majority. Reid is also likely to schedule votes on Janet Yellen to lead the U.S. Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson, Obama's choice to run the Homeland Security Department.

Reid began the process of approving the nominees Monday evening during an exchange with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has emerged as his caucus’s staunchest defender of the chamber's old rules. Three weeks ago Democrats in the majority voted to end decades of Senate filibuster tradition and allow simple majority votes on most presidential appointments, excluding Supreme Court nominees.

After Alexander objected to Reid’s perfunctory request to approve 76 nominations by unanimous consent Monday, the Tennessee Republican accused Reid of breaking the rules in order to change the rules.

In a lengthy floor speech, Alexander said the method of changing a major rule on a party-line vote – rather than the standard two-thirds super-majority – established a new precedent that ended centuries of tradition in which the Senate was the body with nearly unlimited debate. “A Senate in which a majority can change the rules at any time for any reason is a Senate with no rules. That is why it is not too much to say that the Democratic majority has created a perpetual opportunity for the tyranny of the majority. The majority can do anything it wants any time it wants,” Alexander said.

Thwarted in his effort of have all Obama's nominations approved Monday, Reid then set up the votes that transpired Tuesday.

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Lori Montgomery | December 10, 2013