Senate’s filibuster rule change opens floodgates for Obama nominees

Republicans look for alternative ways to check power

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President Obama and Senate Democrats pushed through a raft of administration nominees this week after changing the chamber’s rules, leaving Republicans to consider a dwindling array of tactics to check the president’s power.

The Senate voted 51-44 early Thursday to confirm Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Hours later, senators confirmed Chai Feldblum to another term on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by a largely party-line vote of 54-41.

Earlier in the week, the Senate confirmed the long-stalled nomination of Rep. Melvin L. Watt, North Carolina Democrat, by a 57-41 vote to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates mortgage gains Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Senate also approved the nomination of Patricia A. Millett to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by a vote of 56-38.

It’s unlikely that any of the nominations would have been approved without Senate Democrats’ action last month, sanctioned by the White House, to eliminate the traditional requirement for a supermajority of 60 votes to break a filibuster over a presidential nominee. Republicans vehemently opposed the change, which allows the majority party, currently the Democrats, to break filibusters with 51 votes.

Republican lawmakers angered by the power play said this week that they would look for other ways to fight presidential nominations through next year.

“All of us know what this is about,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican. “This is about control of this body.”

It goes beyond control of the Senate, to the fate of Mr. Obama’s second-term agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the Democrats’ push is aimed at installing friendly judges on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court, which rules on actions by federal agencies and on programs such as the Affordable Care Act.

“The American people should know what the liberal playbook is,” Mr. McConnell said. “The left believes the president’s agenda runs straight through the D.C. Circuit Court. Anything it takes to get this president’s agenda around the checks that have been established to restrain power. Anything it takes to get around anybody who disagrees with them, whether it is Obamacare or the judges they expect to defend it. Anything it takes, they are willing to do.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who deployed the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules, said Republicans are reaping what they sowed with years of obstruction. He said Republicans’ stalling tactics that lasted into Thursday morning were more proof that he needed to change the rules.

“Why are they doing this?” Mr. Reid said. “What is this supposed to accomplish? It is showing the American people why the rules had to be changed. We were wasting all of our time on nominations and not allowing us to have any time to get to substantive legislation. And it’s not fair. This president, any president, not to be able to have a team in place that — President Obama’s been trying to do this for five years.”

Without the filibuster, Republican senators probably will rely more often on the “blue slip” practice to block judicial nominees, said Carl Tobias, professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law. Blue slips signal senators’ approval or disapproval of nominees from their home states.

Mr. Tobias said some Republican senators also are likely to continue refusing to submit names of potential judicial nominees from their home states to the White House.

“They haven’t been systematically suggesting people to the White House, and the White House won’t nominate someone who doesn’t have home-state senator support,” Mr. Tobias said. “So they can bring it to a halt in every state where they have one senator.”

More than 80 judicial seats nationwide are vacant.

Although many of Mr. Obama’s nominations have been contested, none has been opposed by Republicans more actively than the candidates for the D.C. Circuit such as Judges Pillard and Millet. The federal appeals court is considered the second most powerful court in the nation and a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.

The president hailed Judge Pillard’s confirmation Thursday and noted that the 11-seat court will have five women on the bench for the first time in history.

“Throughout her career, Ms. Pillard has displayed an unwavering commitment to justice and integrity,” Mr. Obama said. “Her landmark accomplishments on behalf of women and families include Supreme Court cases defending the constitutionality of the Family and Medical Leave Act and opening the doors of the Virginia Military Institute to female students. I’m confident she will be a diligent, thoughtful and judicious addition to the D.C. Circuit.”

Mr. McConnell said she is a “liberal ideologue” and an activist on the abortion issue, and could be hostile to the freedom of religion.

“It is an understatement to say that these sorts of views are worrying for someone the president wants on one of our nation’s top courts,” Mr. McConnell said. “She seems like a person with the attitude and disposition of a left-wing academic.”

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