By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed the first of President Barack Obama's stalled judicial nominees since it stripped Republicans last month of their power to stop them with procedural roadblocks 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.
Later on Tuesday, the Senate was expected to confirm Melvin Watt as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Like Millett, he had been blocked earlier by Senate Republicans.
The Senate is on track to confirm later this week nine other judicial and executive-branch nominees, including Jeh Johnson as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Next week, Democrats plan to move to confirm Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve, and two more nominees to the D.C. Circuit - U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins and Georgetown professor Nina Pillard.
Obama's Democrats, who hold the Senate 55-45, cleared the way last month for this confirmation parade by reducing 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, Democrats accused Republicans of unprecedented obstructionism. Republicans fired back by accusing Democrats of an unwarranted power grab.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also accused Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Obama 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 the president's landmark healthcare program.
Democrats defended the filibuster rule change, saying it was needed to fix "a broken Senate," at least on stalled nominees, and will let Obama to fill out his second-term team.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said, "I hope reasonable Republicans will join us in restoring the Senate's ability to fulfill its constitutional duties."
Obama's judicial nominees were a focus of the 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 less 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 to be seen what impact the rules change will have on the Senate, long dubbed "the world's most deliberative body."
It's also unclear how Republicans will retaliate. They could slow other nominees with a number of tactics, such as by 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, including for a long-sought budget deal.
"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 who teaches a course on the legislative process.
"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 and Andrew Hay)