Democrats used 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 federal judges and agency leaders are expected in the coming days, further cementing a historic and controversial 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 56 to 38 to confirm Patricia A. Millett to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 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 Obama picks to join what is broadly considered the second-most important federal court in the nation because it handles cases regarding federal regulations.
Earlier Tuesday, 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 L. 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 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 frustrated by repeated Republican filibuster threats voted to end decades of Senate 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 long 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 scheduled the votes that transpired Tuesday.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.