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Senators clash over Obama judge and housing picks

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 11:00 a.m. CDT
(Jacquelyn Martin)
FILE - In this May 1, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama's nominee for the Federal Housing Finance Authority director Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., waves during the announcement of his nomination in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Democrats are struggling to halt a Republican blockade against Obamaís pick of Watt and of Patricia Millett for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans accused Democrats of trying to turn an influential federal court into a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama's policies as a showdown approached over Senate confirmation for a nominee to that court.

A vote was expected Thursday on Democratic efforts to end GOP procedural delays against Patricia Millett, Obama's choice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Democrats were not ruling out that if Millett's nomination were derailed — and that seemed likely — the fight could escalate into a rerun of last summer's partisan brawl over who wields power in the Senate.

Though the stakes were lower, Democrats were straining to find enough support for Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. A vote on Watt was also set for Thursday. The agency oversees government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Because the D.C. circuit court rules on federal agency actions, it is widely considered second only to the Supreme Court in judicial power. Its current eight judges — there are three vacancies — are divided evenly between those appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, meaning Millett's confirmation would tip the balance toward Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued that the D.C. circuit court's workload was too light to merit adding another judge. He said Democrats were pushing "transparent efforts to politicize a court that doesn't need judges in an effort to create a rubber stamp for the administration."

Democrats say that 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 say GOP opposition to Millett is based strictly on politics.

"She doesn't fit into the political game plan today on the other side of the aisle," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Democrats have not ruled out that Millett's defeat would spark a renewed effort by them to unilaterally change Senate rules to weaken the minority party's ability to block presidential appointments.

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.

Thursday's votes were coming as Republicans looked for ways to reassert themselves after a stinging defeat in their battle with Democrats over the partial government shutdown and debt-limit extension.

Democrats, who need 60 votes to prevail on both nominations, planned the roll calls for the day of the swearing-in of their 55th vote: Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, N.J., who won a special election earlier this month.

Even so, they were straining to find the five GOP votes they needed for each nominee.

Watt is a 21-year House veteran who has served his entire tenure on the House Financial Services Committee. At the Federal Housing Finance 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 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.

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. The judgeships are lifetime appointments.

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.


Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.

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