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Senate filibuster battle resumes over Obama nominees

Senate confirmation votes on President Barack Obama’s nominees to a federal housing agency and to the powerful appeals court in Washington were blocked Thursday by Republican senators.

Obama’s nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) fell four votes short of the 60 votes needed to advance to a final up-or-down vote.

Voting to advance the Watt nomination were two Republican senators, Sen. Richard Burr from Watt’s home state of North Carolina, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who served with Watt in the House.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., explained his vote against Watt by saying “a technocrat, not a politician, should lead the FHFA, the regulator charged with overseeing the $5 trillion portfolios of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

A few minutes later, Obama’s nomination of Washington attorney Patricia Millett to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also failed to get the 60 votes needed under Senate rules.

Two GOP senators voted for cloture, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Three other GOP senators voted “present” – Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

The votes signaled a renewal of the struggle over the Senate cloture rule which requires 60 votes to end a filibuster or a threatened filibuster.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the bipartisan Gang of 14 who ended a filibuster standoff on judicial nominees in 2005 during the Bush administration, said that members of that group had agreed that they’d resort to filibusters of judicial nominee only in “extraordinary circumstances.”

He said, “It is my judgment as a United States senator that extraordinary conditions exist” with regard to the Watt and Millett nominations, but he did not explain what made the current circumstances extraordinary.

McCain urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to not move to the so-called “nuclear option,” that is changing the filibuster rules by a simple majority vote, which would violate Senate rules.

“If we go to the nuclear option  –  which I understand some of my colleagues are now frustrated to the point where they'd like to  – meaning that 51 votes will now determine either nominees or other rules of the Senate, we will destroy the very fabric of the United States Senate,” he said.

But McCain added, “I understand the frustration of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I think it's interesting that well over half of my colleagues in the Senate have been here less than seven years. The majority of my friends on the other side have not been in the minority,” which, he implied, meant they couldn’t know how it felt to be in the minority and to have little leverage.

Earlier this year, filibuster threats had held up Senate confirmation of Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy as well as Obama nominees to serve on the National Labor Relations Board.

That standoff was resolved with the departure of NLRB members whom Obama had given recess appointments and with McCarthy’s agreement to allow more transparency in EPA processes.

But the Watt and Millett votes on Thursday mean that the filibuster is back on the agenda.

As to Millett, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “If the Republican caucus finds that despite her amazing, stellar legal reputation and commitment to her country, that somehow a filibuster is warranted, I believe this body is going to have to consider anew whether a rules change should be in order.”

Leahy warned, “If Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of individual merit, we will have drastic measures” to change the filibuster rule.

Republicans are opposing Millett not because they question her competence or because they think she’s ideologically dangerous, but because they say the workload on the appeals court does not require another judge at this point and also because they don’t want to tip the court’s ideological balance. It now has four active judges appointed by Democratic presidents and four appointed by Republican presidents.

It also has six judges on senior status, who take part only in some cases. Five of them were appointed by Republican presidents and one by a Democratic president.

In May, the Senate unanimously confirmed one Obama nominee to the D.C. Circuit, Sri Srinivasan, after having blocked a confirmation vote on another, Caitlin Halligan.

There are still three vacancies on that court and none of Obama’s three nominees, including Millett, has yet gotten a confirmation vote.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, argued that the appeals court for the D.C. circuit is extra sensitive because of Obama’s use of executive orders, some of which can be challenged in that court.

“We’re in a situation where this administration has said, ‘if Congress won’t (pass a law), I will.’ He’s going to do it by executive order. This is the court that can rule for or against the executive orders of this administration. We need to maintain checks and balances in government.”

Meanwhile McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., said this week that they will attempt to use another Senate procedure – a “hold” –  delay a confirmation vote on Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve. They want to extract more information from the administration about the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last year.

Last week Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he would put a hold on the Yellen nomination unless Reid would agree to allow a vote on his bill to require an outside audit of the Federal Reserve.