Senate confirms first Obama ‘post-nuclear’ nominee in 56-38 vote

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The Senate voted 56-38 Tuesday to confirm Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit Court, making her the first nominee of President Obama’s to clear the Senate since Democrats unilaterally changed the rules in a vote last month. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) voted with Democrats.

The rule change means only 51 votes are needed to end a filibuster on nominations below the level of the Supreme Court.

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The move outraged Republicans, who said Democrats had severely undermined minority rights in the upper chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggered the “nuclear option” to make the change. It allows the Senate’s rules to be changed by a majority vote.

“This was a pure power grab, plain and simple,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote Tuesday. “If the majority party can’t be expected to follow the rules, then there are no rules.”

Republicans have warned that in response, they would seek to use other rules to slow the Senate’s procedure to a crawl.

"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," President Obama said in a statement. "Ms. Millett is a leading appellate lawyer who has made 32 arguments before the Supreme Court, the second-most by a female advocate. 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."

A second nominee is expected to be approved when the Senate considers Rep. Mel Watt’s (D-N.C.) nomination to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The Senate is expected to vote to end debate on Watt’s nomination later Tuesday. After up to eight hours of debate, the Senate will proceed to his confirmation vote.

The D.C. Circuit is often considered the second most powerful bench in the country because it has jurisdiction over most federal agencies.

The nominations of Millett and two other judges to the court set off the fight between Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans warned that Democrats would regret the “irrevocable” change once they are in the minority.

“Washington Democrats changed our democracy irrevocable,” McConnell said. “And to what end, to pack the courts.”