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Senators clash over Obama nominees

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FILE: Dec. 30, 2012: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid walks to meeting on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. (AP)

Senate Republicans, in a final protest before the holiday break against what they've called a Democratic "power grab," are staging an around-the-clock speech-spree to stall some of President Obama's nominees. 

The clash started overnight after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to smooth the way for votes on 11 nominees. Republicans objected, in large part out of consternation that the Democratic majority recently weakened their ability to block nominations. 

Republicans, though, still have the power to drag out the process, and were doing so -- with the floor speeches, 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. 

Early Thursday morning, the Senate approved the first of the nominations, voting 51-44 to confirm Cornelia "Nina" Pillard to the influential D.C. Circuit court. Once the Senate takes up the nominations, they must all be dealt with before lawmakers can take up any other business, including the tentative budget deal or the defense authorization bill. 

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 in November that limited 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. 

Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and John Barrasso, R-Wyo, used the overnight session to rail against the federal health care law. Barrasso accused Democrats of triggering the so-called "nuclear option" to create a distraction from the rollout debacle. 

"What were seeing I believe is an effort to divert attention away from the ObamaCare nightmare," Barrasso said early Wednesday. 

Thanks to filibuster rules 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, Re-Neb. "This is about control of this body."

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,  soon, Pillard and 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.

Fox News' Chad Pergram, Kara Rowland and The Associated Press contributed to this report.