Some big news this afternoon on the judicial nominations front: The Senate approved cloture for District Court judge nominee John McConnell by a solid 63-33 vote, despite heavy opposition from conservative groups.

Voting yes were 52 Democrats, with Akaka missing the vote, and 11 Republicans: Alexander, Brown, Chambliss, Collins, Graham, Isakson, Kirk, McCain, Murkowski, Snowe and Thune. Coburn, presumably a no, missed the vote; poor Orrin Hatch, presumably torn between the old GOP principle of not filibustering judicial nominations and his upcoming renomination campaign in the state that tossed Bob Bennett, voted “present,” which is functionally equivalent to a no vote (cloture needs three-fifths of all senators to vote yes; it doesn’t matter how many vote no or don’t show up or, in this case, vote present).

As I said, this is big news. Up to this point, the Senate this year has been steadily processing noncontroversial nominees; a big improvement from the past two years, when even that was often beyond them, but still only useful for unanimous or near-unanimous nominations. For example, the Senate confirmed two other nominations Monday night without any recorded dissent in either case. This is different; this is part of the broad category of nominations that do have strong opposition but still have plenty of votes to clear supermajority procedures. Indeed, it’s very likely that every single remaining District Court nominee, and almost all Appeals Court nominees, probably have that much support. Moving ahead with those appointments would, finally, break the Senate logjam (although it might be too late for a handful of Appeals Court nominees, who certainly had 60 votes in the 111th Congress but never received even a cloture vote).

I just want to underline this: There are basically four types of nominees, based on strength of opposition. Some have unanimous or near-unanimous support; some have at least 60 votes for cloture but some strong opposition; some have a simple majority but do not have 60 votes for cloture; and some cannot muster a simple majority for confirmation. Last year, the Senate had problems with all four the groups. This year, the first group has moved through steadily, and now there’s finally progress on the second group. That, in fact, is big news.

Other notes:

It’s possible that some Republicans will wind up yes on cloture, no on final confirmation. We’ll see.

John Thune? Guess he doesn’t want to be VP, either.

McConnell was originally nominated on March 10, 2010, to an opening that has existed since Dec. 1, 2006. Pathetic.