WASHINGTON - Democrats overwhelmed Republicans and pushed a pair of President Obama's high-profile nominees through the Senate on Tuesday, the first to win confirmation since the chamber weakened the age-old filibuster.
By 56-38, senators confirmed attorney Patricia Millett to join the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Her approval tilts that circuit's judges 5-4 toward those appointed by Democratic presidents, an important advantage for a court that rules on White House and federal agency actions.
The Senate then used a 57-41 roll call to confirm Rep. Mel Watt (D., N.C.) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That bureau oversees the two giant taxpayer-owned home lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Watt's approval came after Democrats took advantage of the eased rules for ending filibusters and halted GOP delays that had blocked his nomination since Obama announced it in May.
The votes came nearly three weeks after Democrats overpowered Republicans and made it harder for the Senate minority party - currently the GOP - to use filibusters, or procedural delays, to block nominations.
Filibusters for nearly all nominations, but not legislation, can now be ended by a simple majority vote instead of the 60 required since 1975. For decades before that, an even bigger margin, two-thirds, was needed to halt the delays.
Democrats and their allies hailed Tuesday's votes as a triumph, with more to come.
"The minority caucus has dedicated the last five years to paralyzing the Senate," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), among a cadre of newer Democratic senators who helped push party leaders to change filibusters. "Today I saw as a good sign."
In retaliation for the filibuster changes, Republicans used the Senate's own procedures Tuesday to slow its work and said they would continue doing so.
They forced three procedural votes before Watt's nomination could be pushed ahead. They also blocked permission - usually granted routinely - for a pair of committees to meet for more than two hours while the Senate was in session.
The GOP response "says that what they've done is wrong, and there's a price to be paid for that," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said. "These are not itty-bitty problems."