In a sign of how the Senate is adjusting to a new set of procedural rules, senators will be summoned again Friday and over the weekend for a series of votes on lower-level nominees amid sustained Republican objections to the changes.
The process of approving several of President Obama’s picks to serve on federal courts and agencies began early Thursday when the Senate confirmed Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She is the second of three Obama nominees confirmed to the court, and legal scholars expect that the new judges will rebalance what is considered the nation’s second-most-important federal court because it handles federal regulation cases.
The confirmation process is expected to continue until Saturday afternoon, when senators plan to vote on Jeh C. Johnson’s nomination as secretary of homeland security.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) decided to devote most of the week’s proceedings to the nominations in order to use the rules enacted last month that allow for most nominees to be confirmed without having to clear a 60-vote hurdle.
Republicans object to the change and are making good on threats to use procedural tactics to slow the process. This week, GOP leaders declined to yield back hours of time set aside for each nominee, as historically has been the practice. The decision forced Reid to call a vote on Pillard’s confirmation about 1 a.m. Thursday and another series of votes about 9 a.m.— hours before the Senate normally holds votes.
The overnight proceedings meant that several junior senators normally tasked with presiding over the chamber were forced to stay late or show up early to sit in the presider’s chair.
The ongoing fight contrasts with the rare bipartisan mood demonstrated this week in the House, which passed a new budget agreement by a wide margin.
Senators voted 51 to 44 to confirm Pillard, who will be the fifth active female judge on the D.C. Circuit, a record high. Three moderate Democratic senators — Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — voted with 41 Republican senators against Pillard amid concerns among conservatives about her views on abortion rights and the Constitution.
A Supreme Court scholar at Georgetown University, Pillard has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court and other federal courts. In a statement Thursday, Obama noted that Pillard defended the constitutionality of the Family and Medical Leave Act before the Supreme Court. “I’m confident she will be a diligent, thoughtful and judicious addition to the D.C. Circuit,” he said.
Five senators did not vote on the Pillard nomination early Thursday.
Later in the day, senators confirmed one of Obama’s picks to serve on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and others to serve on federal district courts in Montana, New Hampshire and New York. Overnight and into Friday, senators will continue with procedural and confirmation votes on Deborah Lee James to serve as secretary of the Air Force, Heather Higginbottom to serve as the deputy secretary of state for management and Anne W. Patterson to serve as an assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
On Friday, the Senate will begin debating Johnson’s nomination, with a vote expected Saturday afternoon, aides said.