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The big rule change that Senate Democrats forced on Republicans last month has borne its first fruit. Appellate lawyer Patricia Millett today was confirmed for a seat on the powerful District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, and North Carolina Congressman Mel Watt was confirmed to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Republicans had blocked Millett's nomination under a rule that required 60 votes to proceed. After the change, all but Supreme Court nominations can move forward with a simple majority of senators.
With 55 members and the Democratic Caucus that change would seem to clear the way for many stalled nominees. But as NPR's David Welna reports, Republicans are still fighting to slow things down.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: After the Senate voted 56-to-38 to send Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit Court, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley declared the rules change that he fought for, and that made that outcome possible, it was a victory for a functional Senate.
SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY DEMOCRAT, OREGON: And I must say, over the Thanksgiving break, everywhere went people were so thankful that some of us are fighting to make this institution were for the American people.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: They did this for one reason: To advance an agenda that the American people do not want.
WELNA: That's Republican leader Mitch Connell. He said the vote on her nomination was really about Senate Democrats and President Obama trying to pack the courts.
MCCONNELL: This vote isn't about any one nominee. It's not about Patricia Millet. It's about an attitude on the left that says the ends justify the means.
WELNA: McConnell then challenged the ruling, made nearly three weeks ago, that removed the 60 vote supermajority threshold for almost all nominations.
Newly elected freshman Democrat Cory Booker, of New Jersey, whose very first vote was to change those rules, responded in his temporary role as the presiding officer.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Under the precedent set by the Senate on November 21, 2013, cloture on nominations, other than those to the Supreme Court of the United States, is invoked by a majority vote.
MCCONNELL: I feel the ruling of the chair and as for the yeas and nays.
WELNA: Democrats, once again, upheld the rules change. But it clearly left Republicans feeling bitter. Susan Collins was one of only two Republicans who voted to confirm Patricia Millett today, but she did so with a caveat.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS REPUBLICAN, MAINE: I think the change of rules was a terrible injustice that compromises the rights of the minority.
WELNA: When the Senate reconvened yesterday after a two-week break, it was the first day it had been in session since Democrats forced the rules change. Their leader, Harry Reid, opened yesterday's session with a plea for cooperation.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I hope we can put aside our differences and work together, like we used to.
WELNA: Reid then asked the Senate to confirm a couple dozen nominations that normally would sail through with no objections. But this time, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said no.
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: The Democratic majority changed the rules of the Senate in a way that creates a Senate without rules. And so, until I understand better how a United States senator is supposed to operate in a Senate without rules, I object.
WELNA: Forcing those nominations past Republican objections could take many months. And the fate of future judicial nominations before the Judiciary Committee is also uncertain. Asked whether those nominations would be blocked in committee, this was ranking Republican Chuck Grassley's reply.
SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: That decision is going to be made by our caucus, not by Chuck Grassley. And I think that there is a possibility.
WELNA: Grassley said the nomination showdown will likely continue.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.