WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama set the stage Tuesday for a showdown with Senate Republicans over whether they will try to block three of his judicial nominees from joining the closely balanced D.C. Court of Appeals.
Speaking before friends, aides and some Democratic senators in the Rose Garden, Obama voiced his growing anger with Republicans over the slow pace of approving his nominees to executive agencies and the courts.
“Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote,” Obama said. “So this is not about principled opposition; this is about political obstruction.”
The White House staged the formal announcement in the Rose Garden, a venue typically reserved for Supreme Court or Cabinet nominations, to underscore the president’s commitment to his nominees.
Liberal interest groups have urged the White House to press ahead with nominations, particularly to fill court seats, even if Republicans object. That could increase the pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to force a change in Senate rules to restore the expectation of majority rule on nominations.
“Come July there will be a perfect storm in the Senate,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. This summer, the president wants the Senate to confirm his beleaguered nominees to head the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to the judicial nominees. Republicans are threatening to filibuster.
Judges and other nominees need only a 51-vote majority in the Senate for confirmation, but under Senate rules, a single senator may object to calling a vote. If so, it takes 60 votes to end debate.
With the death of New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg on Monday, the Senate has 52 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with them, and 45 Republicans.
In Obama’s first term, Republicans blocked a vote on New York attorney Caitlin Halligan, his first nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She withdrew.
Obama’s second nominee, Deputy Attorney General Sri Srinivasan, won a relatively quick and easy confirmation last month by unanimous vote. He joins a court that has eight full-time judges, four of whom were named by Republicans and four by Democrats. The court also has six senior judges who have a reduced caseload; five of them are Republican appointees. Three court seats remain vacant.
The D.C. Circuit often decides major regulatory cases involving environmental protection, workplace rules, financial services and national security. Its conservative judges have struck down a series of rules championed by Obama appointees. Two years ago, the court tossed out a rule that would have made it easier for shareholders to vote out corporate directors and install new ones. Last month, the D.C. circuit threw out a rule that would have required private employers to post a notice that told workers of their rights to form a union.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, objected to the trio of nominations, accusing Obama of trying to “pack” the D.C. circuit with Democrats. He said new judges were needed more urgently elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court, given the many vacant emergency seats across the country,” he said.
Obama mocked the claim that he is “packing” the courts.
“I didn’t create these seats. They are open seats,” he said. “The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”