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GOP senators hold talkathon over Obama nominees

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Evan Vucci / AP

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., walks to his office after arriving on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The Senate began an around-the-clock talkathon Wednesday over some of President Barack Obama's nominees as embittered and outnumbered Republicans refused to let the Senate take a break given new, Democratic-driven curbs on the GOP's power.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., threatened to hold the Senate in session through the night to deal with 11 nominations, most of them noncontroversial. If Republicans refuse to give up their allotted debate time, the Senate could be in session continuously into Saturday — or longer.

"If we have to work through Christmas, we're going to do that," Reid said, repeating what has become one of his regular holiday season refrains.

There was no immediate sign the GOP would relent after Democrats last month changed the Senate's filibuster procedures to prevent Republicans from blocking Obama's nominees by themselves.

"The Republicans are wanting to waste more of this body's time, this country's time," Reid said from the Senate floor as Senate aides carted in Listerine, fruit, chocolate and mints for what appeared to be a long night ahead. "We are here ... looking at each other, doing basically nothing as we have done for vast amounts of time because of the Republicans' obstructionism."

For minority Republicans, the standoff was less about the qualifications of the slate of nominees than payback for Reid's move to limit filibusters for judicial nominees.

"The Senate was designed to protect absolutely minority rights," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said. "This isn't about obstructionism. This is about 'You limited our rights.'"

The upheaval followed the Democrats' rules change last month that weakened the Republicans' ability to block nominations. 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 top Obama selections to Senate confirmation on Tuesday: lawyer Patricia Millett to a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

"All of us know what this is about," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. "This is about control of this body."

Next up were Cornelia "Nina" Pillard, another Obama choice to join the influential D.C. Circuit court, and 10 other nominees. Just after 1 a.m. EST Thursday, the Senate confirmed Pillard 51-44. Procedural and confirmation votes were to follow on the others, well into Saturday unless Republicans relented. There would be more next week, slated to be the Senate's final session for the year.

Not necessarily, Reid said.

"If we have to work the weekend before Christmas, we're going to do that," he said. "If we have to work Monday before Christmas, we're going to do that."

Angry Republicans were unmoved and ominously implied they would continue to use Senate rules to slow action on nominations into the midterm election year.

"Assuming we take the Senate in 2014, I think it will end in January 2015," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said of Republicans' 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 Pillard — and soon, 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.

Democrats also want to confirm Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to lead the Homeland Security Department by the end of next week.

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