Senate Republicans led a successful charge Thursday to reject two key White House nominees, ramping up a longstanding feud over nominations between President Obama and the GOP.
Rep. Mel Watt's nomination to head the federal agency that oversees mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fell three votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate, with the tally falling mostly along party lines.
Minutes later, the Senate rejected Patricia Ann Millett’s nomination to fill one of three vacant seats on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Obama had lobbied hard for Watt since he nominated the North Carolina Democrat in May. Watt, who has served in the House since 1993, also received strong backing from civil rights and minority groups.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the vote against Watt “enormously disappointing" and said he hopes Republicans will reconsider.
And Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., who has served in the House with Watt since 1996, accused GOP senators of basing their vote on "nothing but politics."
"Senate Republicans are shutting their eyes and covering their ears in order to actively disregard Congressman Watt’s deep expertise in housing policy and decades of service on the House Financial Services Committee," Cummings said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., called the Watt vote "unprecedented obstruction," saying the Senate hasn't blocked a sitting member of House from serving on a presidentially appointed post since the Civil War.
But Republicans said Watt simply didn't have the proper background to run the agency.
“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," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “This is the second FHFA nominee that President Obama has sent who did not meet those standards.”
Influential outside conservative groups also pressed Republicans to oppose Watt, accusing him of supporting "big government" polices and speculating he would expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instead of privatizing the lenders, as they prefer.
"He has been a consistent supporter of the failed government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite the role they played in the housing collapse in 2007 and 2008," said Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. "Most importantly, Watt’s past positions suggest he’ll be very aggressive in implementing many of the bad policies currently being blocked by the agency’s acting director, Edward J. DeMarco."
The final vote on Watt was 56-42, with Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio the sole Republicans supporting the nominee. Reid switched his "yea" vote to no, a procedural move that allows him to reintroduce the nomination later. No other Democrats voted against Watt.
Democrats said the Millett nomination, which fell four votes shy of clearing a key procedural hurdle, was crucial because the 11-seat D.C. Circuit Court has three vacant seats.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., blasted the partisan filibuster of Millett, calling her "an outstanding nominee who deserves to be confirmed on her merits."
Leahy also suggested that Democrats, who control the Senate, should consider changing the chamber's rules to make it more difficult for the minority party to block presidential nominees.
“If the Republican caucus finds that despite [Millett's] stellar legal reputation and commitment to her country that somehow a filibuster is warranted, I believe this body will need to consider anew whether a rules change should be in order,” Leahy said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of hypocrisy, saying they frequently filibustered nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court during President George W. Bush's administration.
"As one [Obama] administration ally put it, ‘the president’s best hope for advancing his agenda is through executive action, and that runs through the D. C. Circuit,'" McConnell said.
Obama has struggled for years to get Senate approval for his nominations, particularly for the D.C. Circuit Court — considered the nation's most powerful bench beside the Supreme Court.
Obama twice has nominated Caitlin Halligan for the court, but Senate Republicans used filibusters to block her bid after accusing her of being a “liberal activist.”
And last year, Republicans were in no hurry to act on many of Obama’s judicial picks, as they hoped a Republican would be in the White House this year and would appoint his own candidates.
Reid has left the door open for reintroducing the Watt and Millett nominations "at some point in the very near future."
"I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism," he said "Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”
This article was originally posted at 1:38 p.m and was updated at 4:29 p.m.