Washington Digest: Senate Republicans block two Obama nominations

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation of two presidential nominations last week over the objections of Democrats who claimed the minority party was abusing its right to filibuster for partisan purposes.

Some Democrats called again for a rule change that would eliminate the 60-vote requirement on procedural votes for nominees that has traditionally provided a check on majority rule.

“If Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of their individual merit, drastic measures may be warranted,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The Senate, voting 55-38, failed to move forward with the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The D.C. court is especially significant politically because it handles most of the legal challenges raised over executive actions. The court is now evenly split, with four judges appointed by Democrats and four by Republicans; but there are three vacancies.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa argued that the D.C. court already has enough judges to handle its caseload and that President Barack Obama is simply attempting to tip the balance for his partisan advantage.

“It is clear the president wants to fill this court with ideological allies for the purposes of reversing certain policy outcomes. This is not just my view. It has been overtly stated as an objective of this administration,” said Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted to block Millett’s confirmation.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also voted “no” in a parliamentary tactic that will allow him to have her nomination reconsidered.

The Senate also failed to move ahead with the confirmation of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Republicans objected to Watt saying he does not have the experience needed to lead such a large and complex agency.

“I think this is the wrong job for this good man,” said Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.

The agency oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together hold nearly half of the outstanding U.S. mortgages and have nearly $5.2 trillion in assets, said Toomey, who is on the Senate financial institutions subcommittee.

“The law insists that the director shall have a demonstrated understanding of capital markets, including the mortgage securities markets and housing finance,” Toomey said. “So we are not talking about being automatically qualified by virtue of being a member of Congress. One needs to be a practitioner.”

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has had an acting director since James Lockhart resigned in August 2009.

Republicans previously objected to the nomination of former North Carolina banking commissioner Joseph Smith.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said she was “deeply disappointed” by Senate Republicans’ refusal to endorse Watt.

“His background, skills and track record of bipartisanship make him an immensely qualified nominee as we confront the challenges that face our recovering housing market,” she said.

The Senate voted 56-42 to move ahead with Watt’s nomination, falling short of the 60-vote threshold. Heller voted to block Millett’s confirmation.

Reid also voted “no” in a parliamentary tactic that will allow him to have her nomination reconsidered.

HOUSE SENDS MESSAGE TO OBAMA

House members last week voted to send a message to the Obama administration that they disagree with the president raising the debt ceiling even though they granted him that authority as part of a deal that ended the government shutdown last month.

The House voted 222-191 in favor of the resolution of disapproval. Three Democrats voted with most Republicans in support, while four members of the GOP opposed the resolution.

“Despite the fact that a large number in this body voted to avoid default, it would be a gross mischaracterization to say that we approve of a debt limit suspension absent adoption of bold policy reforms that will set our nation on a sustainable fiscal trajectory,” said Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., who introduced the resolution.

Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., argued that Republicans were sending a bad and inconsistent message.

“You are saying that serious impairment of our nation’s full faith and credit, which economists warned would plunge us back into recession, was a bad idea (two weeks ago), but doing so is a good idea two weeks later,” Levin said. “That is precisely what you are saying. That is your message.”

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., voted in favor of the resolution.

Reps. Joe Heck, R-Nev., Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., voted against it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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