WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Thursday thwarted the confirmation of two of President Barack 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 to end filibusters, 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 sitting member of Congress who has an extensive record of public service. The vote was 56-42, four votes shy of the required 60.
Next, Republicans dispensed with the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, having earlier accused the president of trying to tip the court's ideological balance in Democrats' favor. That vote was five votes shy of cutting off debate. The White House had explicitly chosen Ms. Millett because they hoped that her nomination would be filibuster-proof. A former government lawyer whose husband serves in the military, she worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime senator and a fierce protector of its arcane institutions, said he believed that 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 Mr. Biden, who was in the Capitol to swear in former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, as New Jersey's newest senator. He called the nominations' losses a "gigantic disappointment."
The votes, coming barely two weeks after both parties' leaders reached a deal to end the government shutdown uttering hopeful predictions of greater comity and cooperation, snapped the Senate back to its bitter partisan reality.
Republican objections to Ms. Millet had nothing to do with her judicial temperament or political leanings. Instead, Republicans said they wanted to refuse Mr. 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 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who pressed his members to vote no. "They've admitted they want to control the court, so it will advance the president's agenda."
Another confrontation -- on these nominations or others -- seems inevitable. Even as Republicans pledged to stop Ms. Millett, two more appeals court nominees were working their way through the Senate confirmation pipeline. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday by a 10-8 party-line vote. Georgetown law professor Cornelia T.L. Pillard was already approved by the committee and is awaiting a Senate floor vote.
The court is now split evenly, with four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees among the judges who regularly hear cases. Among its semiretired judges, five are seen as conservative, one as liberal. There are still three vacancies that Mr. Obama is trying to fill.
Republicans are pushing a bill that would eliminate those three seats permanently because they argue that 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.
"The judiciary is too important to play partisan games with," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "And that's exactly what's going on here."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., implied that 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 Mr. Watt was the first sitting House member to be denied confirmation since the Civil War.
Whether Democrats have the stomach for another consuming fight over the filibuster is an open question. Mr. Reid would need 51 of the 55 members of his majority to go along with any changes, and many of them are leery.
Mr. Reid has taken the Senate to the brink of using what is known as "the nuclear option" to change Senate rules before. Ordinarily it requires two-thirds of the Senate to rewrite the rules, but through a parliamentary loophole, it could potentially be done with a simple 51-vote majority. Until now, he had won concessions from Republicans before pulling the trigger on changing rules that have remained largely the same for a century.
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.