Biden Open to Filibuster Changes After Republicans Block Watt, Millett Nominations (Updated)

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:52pm

Updated 2:56 p.m. | The nomination wars are officially back.

Just minutes after the swearing-in of New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, the Senate dove headfirst back into a standoff over executive and judicial branch nominations.

“I think it’s worth considering it,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said of changing Senate rules on nominees after Republicans filibustered two nominees.

Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s pick of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to become the top housing finance regulator, and Patricia Ann Millett’s nomination to fill one of three vacant seats on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Watt was blocked on a 56-42 vote for cloture, while Millett failed on a 55-38 vote. Sixty votes are needed to avoid a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voted “no” to preserve his right to reconsider the vote.

The Nevada Democrat said after the votes that he would call up two other nominations for seats on the D.C. Circuit.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contended Watt did not have the right experience for the job overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“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. And taxpayers need someone who will protect against future bailouts,” McConnell said in a statement. “This is the second FHFA nominee that President Obama has sent who did not meet those standards.”

Both North Carolina senators backed Watt, including Republican Richard M. Burr.

The votes drew a quick rebuke from the White House and revived talk of using the “nuclear option” to get around filibusters.

“We really hope there’s an opportunity for these nominees to move forward,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, calling both nominees highly qualified and dismissing the opposition as “politics.”

At the Capitol for Booker’s swearing-in, Biden sounded open to backing a rules change.

“I think it’s time for some common sense on confirmation. Mel Watt is absolutely, totally thoroughly qualified. It’s a gigantic disappointment,” Biden told reporters.

The outcome was foretold when Sen. John McCain appeared on the floor shortly before noon to announce that he thought the Watt and Millett nominations were extraordinary circumstances under the terms of the 2005 “gang of 14” agreement that avoided a similar standoff.

“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,” the Arizona Republican said.

McCain was acutely aware what his declaration might mean, immediately suggesting further discussions with Reid.

“If we go to the nuclear option, which I understand some of my colleagues are now frustrated to the point where they’d like to, meaning that 51 votes will now determine either nominees or other rules of the Senate, we will destroy the very fabric of the United States Senate,” McCain said.

As a sitting member of the House, the filibuster of Watt is extremely rare.

In addition, Democrats touted Millett as a moderate choice as a longtime appellate lawyer and wife of a military veteran.

“At the height of her legal career, her husband was called on to deploy as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With two young children at home, Ms. Millett did what many military spouses do every day across this country by filling the role of both parents at home while her husband served in the Navy overseas,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said Wednesday. “Through her legal work, Ms. Millett has earned broad bipartisan support. This includes the support of Peter Keisler, Carter Phillips, Kenneth Starr, Theodore Olson and Paul Clement and a bipartisan group of 110 appellate practitioners, as well as 37 deputy solicitors general and assistants to the solicitor general from both Republican and Democratic administrations.”

The Vermont Democrat’s reference to Keisler’s support is particularly interesting, because his nomination to the same court stalled out during the George W. Bush administration thanks to opposition from Democrats.

There was a bipartisan deal back then to fill some federal appeals court seats with people Reid clearly does not like.

“Because of a deal we made, and I was part of it, and I’ll take responsibility for a lot of it, we put on some bad people on that court to try to alleviate the nuclear option some years ago,” Reid told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a Wednesday interview.

“No one questions her qualifications or her temperament,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday morning, noting that Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz has been among those highlighting the merits of Millett’s nomination.

Republicans have made the case that confirming her and two other nominees to the same circuit is unneeded because of the caseload. Democrats argue that many of the court’s cases are more complex than those of other circuits, however. That’s a contention Republicans are quick to dispute.

“History shows that these Republican arguments have nothing to do with caseload and everything to do with the party of the president,” Leahy said Thursday.

The real argument being made by Republicans is that the power on the D.C. Circuit Court shouldn’t tilt in favor of Democrats, even though there are three vacant seats established by statute.

“Our Democratic colleagues and the administration’s supporters have been fairly candid about it. They have admitted they want to control the court so it will advance the president’s agenda,” McConnell said Thursday.

In the MSNBC interview, Reid said he wasn’t prepared to make threats about trying to deploy a simple-majority change in rules or procedures at this juncture.

“If they want to turn this good woman down, I’ve got two more they’re going to have to look at. … I’m not going to stop with her if they don’t approve her,” Reid said, in reference to Millett.

The Judiciary Committee backed the third D.C. Circuit nominee, Judge Robert Wilkins, on Thursday morning. Wilkins is in the queue for the floor behind Georgetown Law professor Nina Pillard.

Steven T. Dennis and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.