WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's nominees to lead an influential federal court and a housing agency on Thursday, despite Democratic warnings of a return to last summer's partisan brawl over who wields power in the Senate.
In rapid succession, Democrats failed to overcome GOP delaying tactics against Patricia Millett to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Rep. Melvin Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The votes were 55-38 to free Millett's nomination for final passage and 56-42 for Watt's, but both fell short of the 60 votes needed to break the Republican procedural blockade.
The Millett nomination was the flashpoint because the D.C. circuit court rules on federal agency and White House actions, and Millett's confirmation would have given that court's judges a 5-4 tilt toward those chosen by Democratic presidents. Appointments to that court, which currently has three vacant judgeships, are lifetime positions.
Republicans argued that the D.C. court's workload was lighter than other districts and didn't merit an additional judge. They also said Democrats want to turn that court, considered second in power only to the Supreme Court, into a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies.
"This is the court that can rule for or against the executive orders of this administration," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "We need to maintain checks and balances of the government."
Democrats say caseload totals for the D.C. circuit are close to its 10-year average. They also say that when Republicans held the White House, they voted to fill the D.C. court's ninth seat with John Roberts, now the chief justice of the U.S.
They also said GOP opposition to Millett is based strictly on politics and warned they might use their 55-45 Senate majority to weaken the Senate minority party's powers to block nominations. Such a move would infuriate Republicans and might prompt retaliatory GOP procedural moves that could grind the Senate's work to a crawl.
"If Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of individual merit, we will have drastic measures," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Some senior Democrats have been reluctant to limit minority party power in the Senate, saying it would hurt them whenever the GOP gains the majority. But many younger Democratic senators have been eager to streamline Senate rules.
"The conversation on rules changes can't come fast enough for me," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said after Thursday's votes. He called the GOP procedural hurdles "a government shutdown by another tactic."
Last July, Democrats abandoned a threat to change Senate rules after Republicans agreed to supply enough votes for approval of several Obama nominations. Those included his choices to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated early Thursday that Democrats might not act immediately, saying, "I appreciate" a suggestion by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that the two parties talk about the next steps.
"Always willing to do that," Reid said.
After the votes, Reid said the Millett vote was "hard to comprehend." Asked about the next steps, he said, "Time will only tell."
Reid switched his vote to "no" on the roll calls for both Millett and Watt, a procedural move that gives him the right to force fresh votes on both nominees.
Initially, Millett's nomination seemed to have a potential for a revival. She could get to 60 Senate votes when Reid switches back to "yes;" with certain support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who did not vote; and with the backing of all three senators who voted "present" Thursday: Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Millett was an assistant solicitor general, representing the administration before the Supreme Court, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has argued 32 cases before the highest court.
Obama has also nominated attorney Cornelia "Nina" Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins to bring the court to its full strength of 11 judges, nominations that have yet to reach the full Senate.
Republicans are backing a bill by Grassley and others to eliminate one of the D.C. court's 11 judgeships and transfer two others to districts with heavier workloads.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency oversees government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Watt, D-N.C., is a 21-year House veteran who has served his entire tenure on the House Financial Services Committee. At the housing agency, he would succeed acting director Edward DeMarco, a George W. Bush appointee criticized by Democrats for not letting Fannie and Freddie reduce principal costs for homeowners risking foreclosure.
Democrats have praised Watt for having a pro-consumer record, including opposing risky Wall Street behavior that helped produce the 2008 financial industry collapse. He's won support from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders.
Republicans said Watt was short on technical expertise needed to oversee Fannie and Freddie and said he lacked political independence.
He also faced opposition from the influential conservative groups Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. They warned Republicans that their votes on Watt would be counted in their ratings of 2014 candidates.
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.