March 4, 2013

This morning, President Obama made nominations for three posts: The Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, and the Office of Management and Budget. There’s little concern over the quality of these nominees, but as always in the current political environment — where a supermajority is required for nearly every action in the Senate — the real question is whether Republicans will filibuster the president’s choices. Because of their relatively low profile, odds are best that they’re safe from serious opposition (though you shouldn’t discount GOP hostility to the EPA).

But you can’t say the same for the other crop of nominees on deck for the Senate. As the Washington Post reports this morning, Obama plans to change the face of the federal judiciary with a new wave of nominees meant to reflect the diversity of the country:

The president has named three dozen judicial candidates since January and is expected to nominate scores more over the next few months, aides said. The push marks a significant departure from the sluggish pace of appointments throughout much of his first term, when both Republicans and some Democrats complained that Obama had not tried hard enough to fill vacancies on federal courts.

That Obama has made the judiciary a priority is a welcome change from his first term, but again the question remains: Will Senate Republicans confirm his nominees?

As it stands, it’s hard to believe that Republicans will allow Obama to shape the federal bench. The filibuster has been as much of a tool for blocking judicial nominees — like Goodwin Liu or Caitlin Halligan — as its been for blocking legislation and other initiatives from the administration and Senate Democrats. And indeed, the incentives for blocking judicial nominees hasn’t changed; not only will Republicans keep Obama from putting a greater stamp on the United States by stymying his attempt to remake the courts, but they’re not likely to face a public backlash, on account of the obscurity of the process.

It also helps that when given a chance to change the rules and make filibusters more difficult, Democrats blinked. Republicans now know that — for the foreseeable future, at least — they can continue to gum up the works of the Senate without serious opposition from Democratic leadership. Along with others, Majority Leader Harry Reid just isn’t prepared to significantly change the filibuster or its use.

In other words, for as much as this is a welcome change of pace from the administration — which has consistently put nominations on the back burner — we would need a real change of behavior in the Senate — or real filibuster reform — in order to make a difference. And at the moment, there’s just no sign the GOP is ready to open the door to the administration’s agenda.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.