The U.S. Senate confirmed President Obama's fourth pick to serve on a key federal appeals court, a nomination that sparked an historic change in Senate rules and launched a fresh round of partisan acrimony.
Senators voted 55 to 43 to confirm Robert L. Wilkins to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is widely considered the second-most influential federal court in the nation because it handles most cases regarding White House activities and federal rules and regulations and often is a stepping stone for future Supreme Court justices.
Wilkins joins Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard as the most recent additions to the court. Another Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, joined the court in May. With those four picks now seated, Democratic appointees will hold a 7 to 4 majority on the bench.
With the fate of the appeals court in the balance, Republicans and Democrats spent the latter half of 2013 bickering over whether Obama's picks needed to be seated. Republicans argued that the court's caseload is considerably less than other federal appeals courts, but Democrats said the new judges were needed to replenish its ranks. Several retired judges, appointed by Republican presidents, continued hearing cases on a reduced schedule.
The issue came to a head in November, when Republicans blocked consideration of Wilkins, Millett and Pillard and other Obama picks to lead federal agencies. In response, Senate Democrats voted to change Senate procedure so that only a majority of senators need to agree to end debate on a nominee. Previously, at least 60 votes were required in order to proceed to a confirmation vote.