The Senate confirmed Patricia Millett to the powerful federal appeals court in Washington, making her the first of President Obama's judicial picks to be approved since Democrats changed filibuster rules that potentially will usher in a new era of how nominees are confirmed.
The 56-38 vote capped a drawn-out battle with Senate Republicans, who accused President Obama and his Democratic allies of running roughshod over Senate tradition to stack the country's second-most important court with like-minded judges. Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke with the GOP and joined Democrats to confirm Ms. Millett, who held the position of assistant to the U.S. solicitor general.
"I'm pleased that in a bipartisan vote, the Senate has confirmed Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filling a vacancy that has been open since 2005," Mr. Obama said. "Ms. Millett is a leading appellate lawyer who has made 32 arguments before the Supreme Court, the second-most by a female advocate. She has served in the Department of Justice for both Democratic and Republican presidents. I'm confident she will serve with distinction on the federal bench."
The Senate is poised to push forward with two more nominees to the court before the end of the year — nominees that Republicans had blocked before the rule change — in a move that could further cement the new way the chamber is doing its business.
"In the short term, it should make it easier to secure floor votes to which [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell] has slowly agreed," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "In the longer term, some observers are concerned that it could change the Senate as an institution by affording less protection for the minority's rights. The GOP has also threatened to apply the new rule to [Supreme Court] nominees if they win a Senate majority and the White House."
Senate Democrats cleared the way for the vote last month when they triggered the "nuclear option" to change the chamber's traditional filibuster rules — a move that made it harder for the minority party to block a nomination by reducing the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority of 51.
"Two weeks ago the president and his Democratic allies defied two centuries of traditions, their own prior statements, and, in the case of some Democratic leaders their own public commitment about following the rules of the Senate," Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said before the vote. "They did this for one reason: to advance an agenda that the American people do not want."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considered the nation's second-most important — right behind the Supreme Court — because it weighs in on appeals from federal regulatory agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
It also has served as a proving ground for Supreme Court justices.
Before the rule change, Senate Republicans had used the filibuster to blocked the nomination of District Judge Robert L. Wilkins from filling one of the three vacancies on the D.C. circuit. The move added to the partisan tensions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats increasingly have grown frustrated with Republicans' ability to thwart Mr. Obama's nominees through the filibuster.
Republicans had blocked Ms. Millet's nomination, as well as Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard, from filling another court vacancy.
Senate Democrats responded by voting 52-48 last month to change rules on judicial and executive nominations. The move, though, doesn't apply to Supreme Court picks, which are still subject to a 60-vote threshold.
Both sides have used the filibuster to stop the other party's judicial nominees.
Democrats — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — championed the filibuster strategy with President George W. Bush's picks, and Republicans had countered, saying they are giving Democrats some of their own medicine.
But Democrats say it is now worse than it was in the past, and many of them said the rules needed to be changed to allow judges to be confirmed on up-or-down votes.
Conservative groups, meanwhile, are working to draw more attention to the confirmation votes, and plan on holding the votes against red state Democrats, who they charge are rubber-stamping judges that are ideologically aligned with Mr. Obama.
No Democrats opposed Ms. Millett's confirmation.
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