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Senate confirms D.C. court judge

Lacking filibuster, GOP can’t stop votes on nominees

Patricia Millett, former assistant to the solicitor general, will join the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Associated Press/file

Patricia Millett, former assistant to the solicitor general, will join the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

WASHINGTON — Democrats overwhelmed outnumbered Republicans and pushed a pair of President Obama’s high-profile nominees through the Senate on Tuesday, the first to win confirmation since the chamber weakened its traditional filibuster.

By 56-38, senators confirmed attorney Patricia Millett to join the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Her approval tilts that circuit’s judges 5-4 toward those appointed by Democratic presidents, an important advantage for a court that rules on White House and federal agency actions.

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The Senate then used a 57-41 roll call to confirm Representative Mel Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That bureau oversees the two giant taxpayer-owned home lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These approvals came after Democrats took advantage of the eased rules for ending filibusters. Until the changes, 60 votes would have been needed to end procedural blockades on nominees.

Later, senators voted 56-42 to end a filibuster against the nomination of attorney Cornelia ‘‘Nina’’ Pillard for another vacancy on the D.C. circuit. Her confirmation was expected later this week.

The votes came three weeks after Democrats made it harder for the Senate minority party — currently the GOP — to use filibusters to block nominations.

Filibusters for nearly all nominations, but not legislation, can now be ended by a simple majority vote instead of the 60 required since 1975. For decades before that, an even bigger margin, two-thirds, was needed to halt the delays.

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Democrats and their allies hailed Tuesday’s votes as a triumph, with more to come.

‘‘The minority caucus has dedicated the last five years to paralyzing the Senate,’’ said Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, one among a cadre of newer Democratic senators who helped push party leaders to change filibusters. ‘‘Today I saw as a good sign.’’

In retaliation for the filibuster changes, Republicans used the Senate’s own procedures Tuesday to slow its work.

They forced several procedural votes before Watt’s nomination could be approved and did the same on Pillard. They also blocked permission — usually granted routinely — for a pair of committees to meet for more than two hours while the Senate was in session.

‘‘It says that what they’ve done is wrong and there’s a price to be paid for that,’’ Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said of the GOP response. ‘‘These are not itty bitty problems.’’

With Republicans talking about using all the debate time that Senate rules allow, majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has threatened to hold evening and weekend sessions.

The nomination fight is intensifying at the start of what Reid has planned as a final two-week stretch before adjourning for the year. During that time he wants approval of an emerging budget deal, a huge defense bill, and perhaps other measures.

Reid also wants the Senate to confirm three other major Obama nominees.

They are US District Judge Robert Wilkins, who with Pillard would fill the two remaining D.C. circuit vacancies; Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve; and Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security.

Millett works in the Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump, one of the capital’s largest law firms. A Harvard Law School graduate, she served as an assistant to the solicitor general under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

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