By ALAN FRAM, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are ready to propel another one of President Barack Obama's court picks through the Senate, now that outnumbered Republicans have less power to block the president's nominees than they used to.
The Democratic-led chamber planned Wednesday to consider Obama's choice of Cornelia "Nina" Pillard to join the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
That debate was allowed after senators voted 56-42 on Tuesday to end GOP delays that had prevented a vote on her confirmation. Her approval was expected in the next day or so.
Tuesday's vote made Pillard the third top Obama pick Democrats have advanced since they forced a weakening of the Senate minority party's ability to block nominations last month. Using their majority clout, Democrats pared the number of votes needed to end filibusters, or procedural delays, from 60 to a simple majority for most nominations.
Thanks to that change, Democrats muscled two other top Obama selections to Senate confirmation Tuesday. One was lawyer Patricia Millett to another vacancy on the D.C. Circuit; the other was Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
"A minority can no longer delay them indefinitely," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who helped persuade Democrats to rein in filibusters, said of nominees. "This is how our democracy is intended to work."
Republicans say they will continue other delays — like forcing procedural votes and using all debate time the rules allow — to signal that Democrats were wrong to force the changes.
"Assuming we take the Senate in 2014, I think it will end in January 2015," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said of the GOP delays.
Until this week, there were four judges on the D.C. Circuit appointed by Democratic presidents, four appointed by Republicans and three vacancies.
The court is crucial because it rules on White House and federal agency actions. Senate approval of Millett — and soon, Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins to fill the open seats — will be a major victory for Obama because it will tilt that panel of judges heavily in his direction.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants the Senate to also confirm Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to lead the Homeland Security Department by the end of next week, when he hopes to adjourn the chamber for the year.
He hopes to also approve a budget deal, a defense bill and other measures. But with all that and angry Republicans chewing up time, Reid may need to force late-night and weekend sessions.
Pillard has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court and helped in others, including one that opened Virginia Military Institute to women. She worked in the attorney general's and solicitor general's offices under President Bill Clinton.
Millett, also a lawyer, served as an assistant to the solicitor general under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has argued 32 Supreme Court cases.
Watt is a 21-year House veteran whose nomination had languished since Obama named him in May. The housing agency he will lead oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-owned home loan giants that were bailed out by taxpayers as the housing market sank in 2008.
Both political parties want to wind down Fannie and Freddie in hopes of reducing taxpayers' risks. Republicans generally want federal regulators to force both companies to focus more on profitability, while Democrats want them to make housing loans more affordable for consumers.