The Senate on Monday night easily confirmed two key White House nominations, with Jeh Johnson approved as head of Homeland Security and Anne Patterson cleared to lead the State Department's Middle East division.
The pair were confirmed by identical 78-16 vote counts.
Johnson, who will replace Janet Napolitano, served as the Defense Department's general counsel from 2009 to 2012. He has said his first priority if confirmed would be to fill several leadership vacancies in the massive department. About 40 percent of the department's top positions are vacant.
Johnson worked as a private lawyer prior to serving at the Pentagon.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., called Johnson a "strong leader and well-prepared to face the challenges that await him."
"He brings experience from the public and private sectors, as well as an impeccable character," Carper said.
Patterson has served as ambassador to Egypt since June 2011 and is a former ambassador to Pakistan. During street demonstrations in Egypt in July against deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, protesters accused her of being sympathetic toward the former leader.
The confirmations were made possible because of new Senate rules unilaterally ushered in by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Frustrated with the minority Republicans' repeated blocks of Obama nominations, Reid last month invoked the "nuclear option" to change the chamber's rules so that certain White House nominees would require only a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber rather than the 60 votes previously needed.
The controversial move was rebuked by Republicans, who accused Reid of running roughshod over minority party rights.
Reid also is expected this week to move forward on Janet Yellen's nomination to head the Federal Reserve.