Political News

Senate blocks Obama picks for judge, housing posts

Posted October 31, 2013

— Senate Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's nominees to an influential federal court and a housing agency on Thursday, despite Democratic warnings of a return to last summer's partisan brawl over who wields power in the Senate.

In rapid succession, Democrats failed to overcome GOP delaying tactics against Patricia Millett to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and North Carolina Congressman Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The votes were 55-38 to free Millett's nomination for final passage and 56-42 for Watt's, but both fell short of the 60 votes needed to break the Republican procedural blockade.

The Millett nomination was the flashpoint because the D.C. circuit court rules on federal agency and White House actions, and Millett's confirmation would have given that court's judges a 5-4 tilt toward those chosen by Democratic presidents. Appointments to that court, which currently has three vacant judgeships, are lifetime positions.

Republicans argued that the D.C. court's workload was lighter than other districts and didn't merit an additional judge. They also said Democrats want to turn that court, considered second in power only to the Supreme Court, into a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies.

"This is the court that can rule for or against the executive orders of this administration," said Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. "We need to maintain checks and balances of the government."

Democrats say caseload totals for the D.C. circuit are close to its 10-year average. They also say that when Republicans held the White House, they voted to fill the D.C. court's ninth seat with John Roberts, now the chief justice of the U.S.

They also said GOP opposition to Millett is based strictly on politics and warned they might use their 55-45 Senate majority to weaken the Senate minority party's powers to block nominations. Such a move would infuriate Republicans and might prompt retaliatory GOP procedural moves that could grind the Senate's work to a crawl.

"If Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of individual merit, we will have drastic measures," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Some senior Democrats have been reluctant to limit minority party power in the Senate, saying it would hurt them whenever the GOP gains the majority. But many younger Democratic senators have been eager to streamline Senate rules.

"The conversation on rules changes can't come fast enough for me," Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said after Thursday's votes. He called the GOP procedural hurdles "a government shutdown by another tactic."

Last July, Democrats abandoned a threat to change Senate rules after Republicans agreed to supply enough votes for approval of several Obama nominations. Those included his choices to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated early Thursday that Democrats might not act immediately, saying, "I appreciate" a suggestion by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that the two parties talk about the next steps.

"Always willing to do that," Reid said.

Asked after the vote about his next move, Reid said he will make a decision but added, "I'm not making it today."

Reid switched his vote to "no" on the roll calls for both Millett and Watt, a procedural move that gives him the right to force fresh votes on both nominees.

Initially, Millett's nomination seemed to have a potential for a revival. She could get to 60 Senate votes when Reid switches back to "yes;" with certain support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who did not vote; and with the backing of all three Republican senators who voted "present" Thursday: Orrin Hatch of Utah and Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

Millett was an assistant solicitor general, representing the administration before the Supreme Court, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has argued 32 cases before the highest court.

Obama has also nominated attorney Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins to bring the court to its full strength of 11 judges, nominations that have yet to reach the full Senate.

Republicans are backing a bill by Grassley and others to eliminate one of the D.C. court's 11 judgeships and transfer two others to districts with heavier workloads.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency oversees government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Watt is a 21-year House veteran who has served his entire tenure on the House Financial Services Committee. At the housing agency, he would succeed acting director Edward DeMarco, a George W. Bush appointee criticized by Democrats for not letting Fannie and Freddie reduce principal costs for homeowners risking foreclosure.

Democrats have praised Watt for having a pro-consumer record, including opposing risky Wall Street behavior that helped produce the 2008 financial industry collapse. He's won support from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders.

Republicans said Watt was short on technical expertise needed to oversee Fannie and Freddie and said he lacked political independence.

He also faced opposition from the influential conservative groups Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. They warned Republicans that their votes on Watt would be counted in their ratings of 2014 candidates.

Watt said he was disappointed by the vote but said he has no plans to abandon the nomination.

"I do not plan to withdraw as the nominee for the position and remain hopeful that we will prevail when the motion for reconsideration is taken up in the Senate," he said in a statement.


Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • hp277 Nov 1, 2013

    Obama should be allowed to pick the members of his team, just like Bush was. Watt's approval should have been a slam dunk - his appointment would only last until Jan 2017.

    Republicans are just intent on using their nullification strategy to hamper federal agencies they don't like, and cling to control of federal courts.

  • Tax Man Oct 31, 2013

    Great work, we really appreciate your keeping these fools off the bench in DC and Mel Watt out of the FHFA.

  • dwntwnboy2 Oct 31, 2013

    Term limits are good enough for the President, they should be good enough for EVERY elected or appointed government employee. I keep seeing these congressmen that have been there 20+ years. Elected office should be an honor, something one does as service to their country, not a career choice for life. Sadly the ones who get to decide on term limits are the very ones that would be affected. Rather than vote on civil rights, we should get to vote on term limits.

  • nailman5204 Oct 31, 2013

    Lifetime term limits need to be abolished.

  • foodstamptrader Oct 31, 2013

    Mel Watt, the posterboy for gerrymandered districts. They don't get any more left than comrade Watt.

    He should be a good fit for Obama's circus troupe...

  • whatelseisnew Oct 31, 2013

    "That worked out so well for the Republicans when they tried that two weeks ago. I suppose when your entire party's approval rating is somewhere below the Taliban, what do you have to lose."

    The mistake the lifer Republicans made was doing the same old caving action. Consider what would have happened if they held out until that Web Debacle happened. The dems would have been happy to agree with a one year delay in the individual mandate instead of stonewalling. But hey McConnell took his almost 3 billion dollar bribe and went on his way. I give him credit for not being bought as cheaply as that Louisiana Senator that sold her Obamacare vote for far less.

  • whatelseisnew Oct 31, 2013

    "They just don't want a dem to nominate someone to the courts"

    And the same goes when a Republican President is putting forward nominees. I think this issue could get partially resolved if lifetime appointments got eliminated. Lets set a 10 year time limit for all Judicial appointments.

  • whatelseisnew Oct 31, 2013

    "Watt is the first sitting Congressman who has had his presidential appointment sucessfully filibustered since 1843. This is just silly - a majority vote should be enough for nominees."

    No it should not. These positions are too important. Keep in mind the people sitting in the seats in the Senate Change and Presidents change. Presidents at times put up some really bad nominees. I don't know about the Judge, but Mel Watt should not get confirmed. Not only that the Federal government has to get out of lending business. Consider the meltdown and Freddie/Fannie and the fact that Watt served his entire tenure on the House Financial Services Committee. While certainly not entirely responsible for the Government helping cause the housing blowup and the resulting meltdown he was knee deep in it along with plenty of other current and former members of Congress. Even to this DAY not one member of congress really paid any price for their part in that fiasco.

  • boylan99 Oct 31, 2013

    Thanks to all the posters on this thread for the entertainment.

  • hp277 Oct 31, 2013

    Another GOP shutdown strategy that's doomed to fail.

    Watt is the first sitting Congressman who has had his presidential appointment sucessfully filibustered since 1843. This is just silly - a majority vote should be enough for nominees.