Post-Shutdown, GOP Finds New Fight Against Obama's Nominees

WASHINGTON – The confirmation wars erupted again in the Senate last week with Republican lawmakers coalescing behind opposition to two White House choices, leading to renewed speculation that Democrats may attempt to alter the chamber’s filibuster rules.

In separate votes, Republicans blocked votes on the nominations of Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and attorney Patricia Millett to serve a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

And the filibustering is unlikely to end with these two nominees. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) already has announced he intends to block the confirmation of Janet Yellen as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System unless his legislation to require greater scrutiny of the agency receives consideration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has threatened to delay all White House nominations – including Yellen’s -- until the Obama administration permits witnesses to provide information about the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four died, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. And there remain two additional picks to the D.C. Circuit Court pending – both considered more controversial than Millett.

The GOP revolt has once again raised questions about the use of the filibuster, which, when applied, requires legislation or a nomination to acquire 60 votes in the 100-member upper chamber before a vote can be conducted.

Both Watt and Millett drew enough votes to win confirmation in a majority vote but neither proved able to reach the 60-vote threshold. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, characterized Millett as “an outstanding nominee who deserves to be treated on her merits” and said GOP opposition could warrant a change in the rules.

“That is not a change that I want to see happen but if Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of their individual merit, drastic measures may be warranted,” Leahy said. “I hope it does not come to that.”

Senate Democrats and Republicans have been butting heads over the filibuster of White House nominations for years. The sides agreed to some modest rules changes at the outset of the 113th Congress intended to make it easier to work around the delaying tactic, but Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and other Democrats remain irritated over GOP efforts to block presidential nominees. Reid considered adopting the “nuclear option” – changing Senate rules to repeal the filibuster by simple majority vote – in July when the GOP stalled the nomination of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and others but the two sides reached a still-shaky, last-minute agreement to keep it in place after certain concessions.

Reid expressed contempt for Republican maneuvers over Watt and Millett but pulled up short of calling for any change.

“I will exercise my right as majority leader to reconsider these nominations at some point in the very near future,” Reid said. “I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”

In both cases, Reid said, Republicans “are serving the Tea Party instead of their constituents. Americans of all political stripes want their leaders to put ideology aside in common-sense cases like these and work together to get things done.”

Republicans oppose Millett and Watt for different reasons. Outside conservative groups, like the Club for Growth, oppose Watt not so much because of his qualifications, or lack thereof, but because they despise the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The group, led by former congressman Chris Chocola, wants to privatize two organizations it oversees – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – and then shut it down.

Senate rejection of a sitting member of Congress is extremely rare. No nominee for a cabinet position, for instance, has failed to gain approval since 1843. The FHFA isn't a cabinet-level position, but the move to oppose Watt led Reid to nevertheless call it unprecedented.

There were questions about Watt’s qualifications. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) expressed doubt that Watt holds the technical aptitude for the job.

“I have said from day one that a technocrat, not a politician, should lead the FHFA, the regulator charged with overseeing the $5 trillion portfolios of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” said Corker, a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “I hope the president will nominate a qualified technocrat with the expertise to play a constructive role in winding down Fannie and Freddie and modernizing our housing finance system.”

That view was further supported by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky.

“America needs someone with technical expertise and experience to run Fannie and Freddie's conservator and ensure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that led to the last financial crisis (of 2008),” McConnell said. “And taxpayers need someone who will protect against future bailouts.”