Senate Democrats Battle Over Court Nominees

Faced with persistent GOP opposition to President Obama's appointments, Majority Leader Harry Reid plans this week to press the point by bringing 17 judicial nominees to the floor.

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In the Senate, a showdown may be in store tomorrow. Senate Democrats accuse Republicans of using filibusters to stall 17 nominees for federal district court. Now, in a bid to end the delays, senators will begin voting on whether or not to sustain those filibusters.

Republicans say it's an election year ploy by Democrats to manufacture a crisis. Democrats say, enough, there's no reason for the Senate to delay the nominees any longer.

NPR's David Welna has the story from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: More than 10 percent of the seats on the nation's federal district courts are currently vacant. It's the Senate's job to review and confirm President Obama's nominees to fill those seats. Seventeen of those nominees have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, most of them unanimously, and seven of them have been endorsed by their home state Republican senators. Seven are nominated to courts whose vacancies have been designated judicial emergencies, yet most of them have been waiting for months to be confirmed by the full Senate because Republicans won't agree to let them come up for a vote.

Today on the Senate floor, majority leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of stalling and obstructing those nominees.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Each one of these men and women's life has been brought to a standstill. They have the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to become a federal trial court judge. They shouldn't have to wait until October. I say to my friend, we can approve these judges in one minute. Let's do that.

WELNA: The friend Reid was speaking to was Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. He did not agree to Reid's proposal for one minute approval. Instead, he accused Democrats of obstructing a jobs bill that's been passed by the House in order to create an artificial crisis.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Our friends on the other side are concerned that the jobs of 17 individuals may be delayed for a few months. I doubt if any of them are unemployed at the moment. And it's highly unlikely that any of these individuals will not be confirmed in an orderly process, as we have been engaged in this year.

WELNA: And Republicans, McConnell said, would not give in.

MCCONNELL: This is just a very transparent attempt to try to slam dunk the minority and make them look like they're obstructing things they aren't obstructing.

WELNA: But University of Richmond courts expert Carl Tobias says it has, in fact, taken much longer than it has for other presidents for President Obama to get his court nominees confirmed.

CARL TOBIAS: The real change has been the slow pace of Senate floor votes for well-qualified, noncontroversial district nominees that goes back throughout the administration.

WELNA: That slow pace, in fact, became practically glacial early this year after Mr. Obama made four recess appointments for executive branch nominees who'd been blocked by Republicans. That infuriated those Republicans, including South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: You got a president who just appointed people in a way that is completely out of bounds and I've tried to be reasonable and not punish judges who've done nothing wrong themselves, but this idea of jamming 17 judges through at one time is - I'm going to gleefully say no to this as a guy who is very worried about blowing up the place over judges.

WELNA: No district court nominee has ever been blocked all together and Graham predicts these ones won't be, either, but they will be for the time being.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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