MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There are about 100 vacancies for lower court judges. Those are also lifetime appointments, and collectively, these judges will have far more of an impact on Americans than any single Supreme Court justice.
So far, the Senate has confirmed a little more than half as many judges as it did during the same period under President Bush.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Senator Kay Hagan recently went to the Senate floor. She's a Democrat, and she tried to force the Senate to vote on two appeals court nominees from her home state of North Carolina.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on both men six months ago: James Wynn was 18 to one, Albert Diaz was unanimous.
Senator KAY HAGAN (Democrat, North Carolina): These fine men have the support of both myself and my colleague from North Carolina, Senator Burr.
SHAPIRO: Senator Richard Burr is a Republican. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky then stood up to explain why he won't let a vote happen. He said this month, President Obama made a recess appointment, putting the head of Medicare and Medicaid in place without a Senate hearing or a vote.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): So given the president has been so dismissive of the Senate's right to provide advice and consent under the Constitution, I'm not inclined at this point to consent to the agreement proposed by my friend from North Carolina. Therefore, Mr. President, I object.
SHAPIRO: These holdups infuriate Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. He recently vented on the Senate floor. It was just before the Senate unanimously voted to confirm Judge Sharon Coleman, who waited three months after her committee vote.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): No Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee voted against this nomination. There are another dozen judicial nominations on the Senate's executive calendar that were reported by the Judiciary Committee, had no objection, but they remain stalled by a Republican refusal to consent to final Senate action.
SHAPIRO: Cries of obstruction are a constant in the Senate. Republicans and Democrats each cite their own statistics to show that the other party is at fault.
For example, Robert Alt of the Heritage Foundation says Democrats have no basis to complain because Obama has nominated far fewer judges than President Bush did during the same period.
Mr. ROBERT ALT (Heritage Foundation): Judges just dont appear to have been a priority either for the White House or for Leahy and Reid in the Senate.
SHAPIRO: While President Bush gave speeches to push his judicial nominees, President Obama has been far less aggressive. One White House official defended that strategy, saying: Is the idea that if the president does a YouTube address, Mitch McConnell will suddenly give consent? That seems a little ridiculous.
Democrats have been able to accomplish a lot in Congress, but this is one area where Senate rules give the Republican minority some power. Here's why: Unless Republicans grant unanimous consent, senators have to spend days debating a nominee before a vote. Democrats would rather spend those days on things like financial regulation and unemployment insurance.
Rachel Brand oversaw judicial nominations during the Bush administration, and she says if there is a problem here, it's one of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's choosing.
Ms. RACHEL BRAND (Former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy, Justice Department, Bush Administration): It may not be worth his time, in his view, to spend any number of hours on a district court nominee as opposed to, say, financial regulatory reform.
SHAPIRO: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejects that argument.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): I don't think this is because we're doing financial reform. I don't think this is because we're doing the Recovery Act. I think there's a strategy by those not to process those judges.
SHAPIRO: Lately, Republicans have been letting more judges through than they did in President Obama's first year. But Nan Aron of the group Alliance for Justice says it's not enough. She wants Democrats to get tough.
Ms. NAN ARON (Alliance for Justice): If Republicans want to bring cots in and sleep overnight, so be it. But I think it's high time for Democratic leadership to schedule votes and to start filling some of these vacancies around the nation.
SHAPIRO: There is time pressure. Virtually everyone expects that Democrats' Senate majority will shrink in November. And after that, it will be much harder for them to force anything against the Republicans' will.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.