Senate Confirms Obama Nominee Under New Filibuster Rules, World Doesn't End

Dec 10, 2013 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans warned Democrats of the grave consequences of going "nuclear" with filibuster rules, saying it would destroy comity and come back to haunt them when they're in the minority.

But Democrats went ahead and changed the rules anyway, and now we're seeing what a nuclear explosion looks like in the Senate: a noncontroversial judge was approved Tuesday by a majority vote, 56-38.

Patricia Millett's confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit makes her the first nominee to move forward in a post-filibuster reform world. Democrats have plenty of other nominees lined up behind her now that it only takes 51 votes to advance executive and judicial nominees (except for Supreme Court nominees, who still require 60 votes).

A senior Democratic aide said the Senate will vote on about a dozen nominees before adjourning for the year, including some, like Millett, who Republicans previously filibustered for reasons that have nothing to do with their credentials. They include two other D.C. Circuit nominees, Janet Yellen for the Federal Reserve and Mel Watt for the Federal Housing Finance Agency. All are expected to get confirmed this time around, many with GOP support.

President Barack Obama praised the Senate's action and noted that Millett's vote passed with some GOP support. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted for her confirmation.

"I'm pleased that in a bipartisan vote, the Senate has confirmed Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filling a vacancy that has been open since 2005," Obama said in a statement. "She has served in the Department of Justice for both Democratic and Republican Presidents. I'm confident she will serve with distinction on the federal bench."

But just because it's easier for Democrats to move nominees on the Senate floor doesn't mean Republicans won't continue holding them up at other stages of the confirmation process.

In addition to GOP senators simply not making recommendations for nominees to fill court vacancies in their home states, The Huffington Post has counted at least 13 nominees currently stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee because of nine Republicans (and one Democrat) refusing to put forward "blue slips," or a tradition in the committee that allows senators to advance or block judicial nominees from their home state.

Many of the stalled nominees hail from Arizona, with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) being the top offender in not submitting blue slips. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is refusing to submit a blue slip for his own nominee, William Thomas, who would be the first openly gay black male federal judge if confirmed. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is withholding a blue slip for another key nominee, Jennifer May-Parker, who would fill the longest standing district court vacancy in the country.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, seems content to keep the blue slip rule in place for now.

"I assume no one will abuse the blue slip process like some have abused the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees on the floor of the Senate,” Leahy said in a statement after the Senate changed its filibuster rules. “As long as the blue slip process is not being abused by home-state senators, then I will see no reason to change that tradition.”

But Michelle Schwartz of Alliance for Justice, a left-leaning association of more than 100 organizations focused on the federal judiciary, said GOP senators are already misusing the blue slip rule and her group is prepared to pressure Democrats to nix the tradition if things get any worse.

"We have seen Republicans withhold blue slips from qualified nominees and there is serious concern that they will only intensify that practice now that another means of obstruction has been foreclosed," Schwartz said. "If Republicans abuse the blue slip courtesy as they abused the filibuster, then we will ask the Senate to reform that process as well."

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