Obama's Nominations Blocked Again In Senate

Senate Republicans have once again blocked President Obama's nominees. Despite a deal in July to let several of the president's picks go through, the rancor has returned with a fresh batch of appointments. Two nominations failed within less than an hour on Thursday, and Democrats may once again threaten to change Senate rules so Republicans can't easily derail another nomination.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Senate Republicans are once again blocking some presidential nominees. You may recall that Republicans reached a deal with Democrats back in July. At that time, they allowed several of President Obama's choices for key jobs to take those positions. Some Senate Republicans have publicly said they should not be blocking so many presidential nominees, yet the roadblocks have gone up again in front of a fresh batch of appointments.

Yesterday, two nominations failed within less than an hour. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Two hours before the voting even began, defeat already seemed a foregone conclusion to many Democrats. They took to the floor railing against the inevitable result. Dick Durbin of Illinois accused Republicans of blocking Patricia Millet from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for reasons that had nothing to do with her qualifications.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: What a sad outcome for a fine woman who has done so well as a professional advocate before appellate courts, has been recommended on a bipartisan basis - the highest recommendations - and now after languishing on the calendar, is going to be dismissed. She didn't fit into our political game plan.

CHANG: Political? Republicans countered their motives were primarily economic. The D.C. Circuit has three vacancies, but they said the court doesn't have the caseload to justify filling those slots. Paul Light of NYU says that's still not a good enough reason to block a presidential nomination.

PAUL LIGHT: The Constitution is quite clear that the Senate is to give its advice and consent, but not to delay nominees because of unrelated issues or to permanently create vacancies in key jobs.

CHANG: Republicans said they opposed Mel Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency because he didn't have the technical expertise to oversee the two mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Although no Republican disputed Millet's qualifications, some - like John McCain of Arizona - said their reasons for opposing her were beyond reproach.

He referred to a compromise back in 2005 when a bipartisan Gang of 14 in the Senate agreed you could only block a judicial nominee under extraordinary circumstances.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: As to both the nominees we are considering today, I find, and it is my judgment as a United States Senator that extraordinary conditions exist.

CHANG: That's a very different tune than the one McCain whistled only six weeks ago, when he was stopped in the hallway and asked if he'd try blocking the D.C. Circuit nominees.

MCCAIN: Years ago, we had an agreement that it required extraordinary circumstances in order to vote against any federal judgeship. That was our agreement many years ago, and I still think it's questionable whether they meet that criteria. So I'm not convinced to vote against them.

CHANG: It's a rapid turnabout that Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says only shows just how strong the pull of the Republican Party is in this polarized Congress.

THOMAS MANN: It's been an oppositional party, there's no question about it. The filibuster has been abused egregiously. It was once an exception, it's now a rule.

CHANG: And that's why Senate Democrats are threatening to change the Senate rules so certain nominations won't need a 60-vote threshold to get through. Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee dared Democrats to bring it on.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I don't think that any of them would want to see a Republican President in 2016 have a 51-vote right to have another Justice Scalia or somebody else on the Supreme Court. I don't see that happening, and I don't think there's anybody in our caucus that takes that seriously.

CHANG: Janet Yellen faces her confirmation hearing this month to become the next chair of the Federal Reserve. At least two Republicans - Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky - are threatening to hold up her nomination. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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