By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed the first two of President Barack Obama's stalled nominees since it stripped Republicans last month of their power to block the approvals with procedural hurdles known as filibusters.
On a mostly party-line vote of 56-38, the Senate approved Patricia Millett, a private lawyer who earlier served in the administrations of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush, for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The Senate then confirmed, on a 57-41 vote, Democratic Congressman Melvin Watt of North Carolina as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
"The Senate has ended the nomination paralysis that has blocked highly qualified individuals, like Congressman Watt, who are essential to rebuilding the middle class," said Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
"The FHFA plays a critical role in ensuring access to affordable home loans ... but has been stymied by not having a confirmed director who was willing to put in place aggressive policies," Merkley said.
Like Millett, Watt had been blocked by Republicans. They questioned the qualifications of this 11-term lawmaker, who Democrats embraced as a top nominee.
Republicans voiced no specific objections to Millett, but had argued there was no need to fill any of three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit.
Later this week, the Senate is expected to confirm up to 10 other judicial and executive-branch nominees, including a second D.C. Circuit nominee, Georgetown professor Nina Pillard, and Jeh Johnson as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Next week, the Senate is on track to confirm Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve, and a third D.C. Circuit pick, Robert Wilkins, who now serves as a U.S. district judge.
Democrats, who hold the Senate 55-45, cleared the way for this confirmation parade by cutting from 60 to a simple majority the number of votes needed to end a filibuster against executive branch and judicial nominees - except those for the Supreme Court.
In changing the rules last month, Democrats accused Republicans of unprecedented obstructionism. Republicans fired back by charging Democrats with an unwarranted power grab.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also accused Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of hypocrisy, saying both opposed such a rule change when they were in the Senate minority.
"But then they did (it) — just as the president had vowed that 'if you liked your health care you could keep it,'" McConnell said, in reference to Obama's broken pledge on his administration's landmark healthcare program.
Democrats defended the filibuster rule change, saying it was needed to help fix "a broken Senate" and let Obama fill out his second-term team.
"I hope reasonable Republicans will join us in restoring the Senate's ability to fulfill its constitutional duties," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Obama's judicial nominees were a focus of the filibuster fight largely because the D.C. Circuit is considered the nation's second most powerful court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of 13 circuit courts, this one handles issues involving the balance of power between Congress, the White House and the courts, and challenges to federal regulations, including those for such hot-button issues as health, finance and environment.
The court's current eight judges are split - four were appointed by Democratic presidents, four by Republican presidents. Obama's three would shift it to seven-to-four.
Republicans had blocked Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit, complaining that he was trying to "pack the court" to win favorable rulings. They also argued that the court's workload did not merit putting any more judges on it.
Democrats dismissed the charges, saying the court's workload is now more than it was when the Senate filled the 11-member court by confirming four of Bush's nominees.
They also said Obama merely wants to carry out his duty to fill court vacancies with top-notch nominees. His D.C. Circuit picks all received the American Bar Association's top rating.
The Senate this year confirmed 37 district and circuit court nominations. Fifty-two are pending.
Also awaiting Senate action are 189 executive-branch nominees, nearly half of them to Cabinet-level agencies.
Approval of the nominees may help Obama achieve some major second-term goals, such as enacting and defending tougher environmental and financial regulations.
Yet it remains unclear what impact the rules change will have on the Senate, dubbed "the world's most deliberative body."
Republicans will still be able to slow down nominees with a number of other tactics, including requiring up to 30 hours of debate on many of them.
They could also deny committees the quorums needed to report a nominee to the full Senate for consideration. But Democrats control all the committee and could end the quorum requirement.
The partisan fall out may make it even more difficult to find much common ground on legislation, little of which this highly unpopular and sharply divided Congress passed this year.
"The filibuster has had its problems. It's been a mechanism of gridlock and has stopped important and necessary appointments," said Abbe Gluck, a Yale law professor.
"On the other hand, the filibuster is a mechanism of deliberations. Sometimes there's a real value to slowing down," Gluck said.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by James Dalgleish, Eric Beech, Andrew Hay and Jackie Frank)