Senate Dems push Obama nominees; GOP bides time

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WASHINGTON -- Fresh from shackling the traditional blocking ability of the Senate's minority party, Democrats are ready to muscle through President Barack Obama's nominees for pivotal judgeships and other top jobs.

Despite last month's Democratic power play, Senate Republicans retain the power to slow, though not derail, Mr. Obama's appointments.

Left unchanged were other rules that the out-of-power party could use to grind the chamber's work to an excruciating crawl. That ranges from requiring clerks to read voluminous bills and amendments to forcing repeated procedural votes.

"There are so many ways of slowing things down in the Senate," said Robert Dove, the Senate's former long-time parliamentarian.

Today starts a two-week, year-end Senate session in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hopes to finish work on a modest budget deal, a defense bill and other lingering items.

It will also be the first test of how Republicans respond to the Democratic changes.

Today's meeting marks the chamber's first since irritable lawmakers left town Nov. 21 for their Thanksgiving break. Earlier that day, Democrats used their 55-45 edge to reshape how filibusters work, trimming the number of votes needed to halt procedural delays against most nominations from 60 to a simple majority.

Democrats pushed through the changes after tiring of what they consider excessive GOP efforts to derail Mr. Obama's nominees. The move angered Republicans, who argued that Democrats frequently tried blocking President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.

How Republicans respond will become clearer when they return to the Capitol. But in a chamber whose arcane rules give any single senator the ability to throw the brakes on much of its work, partisan friction can hurt.

Republicans are already using the rules to flex their muscle.

When the Senate recessed for Thanksgiving, it did not approve a batch of noncontroversial nominations and bills, which it usually does before such breaks. With 60 votes still required to end filibusters against legislation, GOP senators are blocking final passage of the defense bill until Mr. Reid allows votes on Republican amendments.

Today, the Senate will vote to confirm Patricia Millett to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Ms. Millett is a prominent private lawyer who worked in the solicitor general's office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, arguing 32 cases before the Supreme Court. Republicans used the old 60-vote requirement for stopping filibusters to prevent a vote on her nomination in October, a blockade that helped prompt Democrats to force the changes.

Over the next two weeks, Mr. Reid plans to push five more major nominees through the Senate.

They include Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve, Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security and Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. There are also two more Obama picks for the remaining vacancies on the D.C. court -- attorney Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins.


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