WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday thwarted the confirmation of two of President Obama’s nominees, one to a powerful appeals court and another to a home-lending oversight post, setting up a confrontation with Democrats that could escalate into a larger fight over limiting the filibuster and restrict how far the minority party can go to block a president’s agenda.
In a series of swift, back-to-back votes, Republicans first blocked the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, a rare affront to a member of Congress with an extensive record of public service.
Next, Republicans, who have accused the president of trying to tip the court’s ideological balance in Democrats’ favor, dispensed with the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
A former government lawyer whose husband serves in the military, she has worked in Republican and Democratic administrations. Obama chose her as a test of how far Republicans would go to derail a qualified nominee.
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Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime member of the Senate and a fierce protector of its arcane institutions, said he believed the rejection of the two nominees was grounds to re-examine the filibuster rules, which some senior Senate Democrats have advocated.
“I think it’s time for some common sense on confirmations,” said Biden, who was in the Capitol to swear in Cory Booker, a Democrat, as New Jersey’s newest senator. He called the loss a “gigantic disappointment.”
The votes, barely two weeks after a deal to end the government shutdown with lawmakers uttering hopeful predictions of greater comity and cooperation, snapped the Senate back to its bitter partisan reality.
Republican objections to Millet had nothing to do with her judicial temperament or political leanings. Instead, Republicans said they wanted to refuse Obama any more appointments to the appeals court, which is widely recognized as second only to the Supreme Court in importance and often rules on politically significant matters such as presidential authority and campaign finance.
“Our Democratic colleagues and the administration’s supporters have been actually pretty candid,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who pressed his members hard to vote no. “They’ve admitted they want to control the court so it will advance the president’s agenda.”
The court is split evenly with four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees among the judges who regularly hear cases. Among the judges who are semiretired, five are seen as conservative, one as liberal.
There are three vacancies that Obama is trying to fill. Republicans are pushing a bill that would eliminate those three seats permanently because they argue the court has a light caseload.
That has prompted Democrats to accuse Republicans of trying to change the rules simply because they do not like the president who is picking judges.
Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., implied he might try to change Senate rules if Republicans did not relent on the nominees, which he said he would bring up for reconsideration very soon.
“Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation,” he said, adding that Watt was the first sitting member of the House to be denied confirmation since the Civil War.
Whether Democrats have the stomach for another consuming fight over the filibuster is an open question. Reid would need 51 of the 55 members of his majority to go along with any changes, and many of them are reluctant.
Among senators of both parties, there is agreement that a president should be granted deference in picking members of his Cabinet and top executive-branch positions. But with judges, who are given lifetime terms that extend far beyond a president’s four or eight years in office, sentiments can be different.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who favors a change in rules for judges, said he sensed reluctance among his colleagues to eliminate filibusters against judicial nominees in the event that Democrats found themselves in the minority in the future.