WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans' rejection Thursday of two key nominations by President Obama revived a battle over filibuster rules and opened a new partisan front just as congressional leaders and the White House are searching for a budget compromise to avert another government shutdown.
Democrats in the Senate immediately renewed a threat to use their majority to impose the so-called nuclear option, making a historic change to long-standing Senate rules that would prevent a minority party — currently Republicans — from blocking such nominations through filibuster.
The latest clash erupted when Republicans blocked two procedural votes on the confirmations of Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) as top regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Patricia Millett, Obama's selection to sit on the D.C. District Court of Appeals, considered the nation's most influential after the Supreme Court.
FOR THE RECORD:
Obama nominations: An article in the Nov. 1 Section A about Senate Republicans rejecting two key nominations by President Obama included a headline that described the two positions at stake as a Fannie Mae post and a D.C. District Court judgeship. Obama nominated Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, not the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. —
The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 55 to 38 in favor of Millett, and 56 to 42 for Watt, but both fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Democrats accused Republicans of rejecting highly qualified presidential choices. Watt became the first sitting member of the House to be denied Senate confirmation in 170 years. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood silently on the floor during his vote to protest Republicans' blocking of an African American to a senior post.
Republicans countered that Watt was not qualified to lead the complex Federal Housing Finance Agency, a job usually filled by a technocrat, not a politician. Opposition to Millett, they said, was not based on her qualifications, but on a concern that the D.C. Circuit Court does not have the workload to justify adding another member.
Republicans also complained that they feared Obama was attempting to stack the important court — which frequently rules on federal regulations and is a stepping stone to the Supreme Court — with more liberal judges. Currently, the panel is split evenly between four Democratic and four Republican appointees.
The confrontation sets the stage for more bruising partisan battles just weeks after a 16-day government shutdown drove public approval numbers for Congress to record lows. A compromise last month reopened government offices and delayed a potential debt default, but lawmakers must still reach a compromise over taxes and spending before the next shutdown deadline, in January.
Most of the shutdown drama focused on the fractious battles in the House, and many in the Senate tried to portray themselves as Congress' only rational actors, crafting the bipartisan compromise that eventually allowed government services to resume.
Now the Senate appears headed toward a resumption of its own parochial squabbling over rules.
After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would exercise his right to reconsider the nominations soon.
"I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism," he said. "Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation."
Vice President Joe Biden, at the Capitol on Thursday to swear in Democrat Cory Booker as the new senator from New Jersey, said it was "time for common sense" on confirmations. Booker's arrival gave Democrats the 55th vote they lost in June when a Republican was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg until an election could be held.
"Mel Watt is absolutely, totally, thoroughly qualified, and it's a gigantic disappointment," Biden said, adding that changing Senate rules was "worth considering."
It was only three months ago that senators reached a last-minute deal to preempt the Democratic majority's threat to eliminate the filibuster as a tool to oppose presidential nominations for executive-branch posts. As a result of the accord, Obama's choices to lead the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as a full slate of nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, were installed after prolonged delays.
The fragile peace between the parties that followed included not only the deal to reopen the government but also an agreement to lower student loan rates.
Hopes that a bipartisan spirit would linger in the Senate were dashed on Monday, however, when called for new votes on the slate of pending appointments.