WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Monday stymied President Barack Obama’s latest judicial nominee, leaving one of the nation’s top appellate courts shorthanded and escalating the endless confirmation war.
Facing a nearly unified GOP front, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins failed to secure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster and win a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The 53-38 vote late Monday afternoon marked the third time in three weeks that Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block an Obama nominee to the D.C.-based appellate court.
“I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans have once again refused to do their job and give well-qualified nominees to the federal bench the yes-or-no votes they deserve,” the president said in a statement afterward. “This obstruction is completely unprecedented. Four of my predecessor’s six nominees to the D.C. Circuit were confirmed. Four of my five nominees to this court have been obstructed. When it comes to judicial nominations, I am fulfilling my constitutional responsibility, but Congress is not.”
The Senate’s action, with only two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, voting against the continuing filibuster, leaves the appellate court with eight active judges and three empty seats. One of the seats has been vacant since 2005. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted present.
The persistent filibuster poisons the well for other judicial nominees, potentially for years to come. It’s prompting Senate Democrats, once again, to consider the so-called “nuclear option” that would change Senate rules and ignite GOP rage.
The often threatened but never used nuclear option refers to a parliamentary maneuver that would enable the Senate majority to change the rules and win confirmations with 51 votes instead of 60.
The judicial nominee showdowns also illuminate the selective use of evidence by both sides.
“Now what we’re getting is not the pretense of extraordinary circumstances (to block a nominee),” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “What we see is, ‘We’re going to keep the D.C. Circuit tilted in a conservative direction even through eight years of your presidency.’ ”
The court’s eight active judges are split evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees. But of the court’s six senior judges, who can also hear cases, five are Republican.
Republicans say the court has all the judges it needs.
“We shouldn’t confirm any more judges to the D.C. Circuit, especially when those additional judges cost approximately $1 million per year, per judge,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday.