Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), center, hoped for a quick vote on federal judges. (Susan Walsh/AP)

This story has been updated.

Senate leaders reached a deal Wednesday on judicial nominations, averting what could have been a weeks-long fight over the fate of 17 picks to serve on the federal bench.

After sparring on the issue for the last three days, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled at midday that they had reached a deal. Democratic aides said senators would vote to confirm 12 federal district court nominees and two circuit court picks by May and move next to a vote on a bipartisan jobs bill that passed overwhelmingly last week by the House with White House support.

The agreement, announced after the Senate approved a transportation funding bill by wide margins, appears to be a victory for Republicans, who had pushed Reid to hold a vote on the jobs measure. Democrats, having successfully drawn Republicans in recent weeks into a fight over reproductive rights and religious freedom, instead appeared eager to revive a years-long argument over federal court nominations.

Reid moved Monday to hold an up-or-down vote on 17 nominees to U.S. district courts, noting that 14 of the nominees earned unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and that all of them deserved swift confirmation.

Republicans, angered by the move, called Reid’s decision “stupid,” “a power grab” and the start of a “manufactured crisis.”

“I assume these 17 people already have a job, they’re not unemployed,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “What we’re worried about is all the people who don’t currently have a job who might in someway benefit from a jobs package that we are by and large in agreement on.”

That argument appeared to convince Democrats Wednesday to hold off and move instead to consideration of jobs legislation.

Much of the fight over judges boils down to competing sets of facts: Obama’s judicial nominees wait an average of 93 days to be confirmed, according to Senate Democrats, much shorter than the 22-day average enjoyed by GOP nominees at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency.

“This has never happened to any president, Republican or Democrat,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Tuesday. “For some reason, they seem to think President Obama is different.”

But the Senate confirmed 62 Obama judicial nominees last year, and seven so far this year, according to Senate Republicans, who note that Obama has failed to tap nominees for most of the current 83 judicial vacancies.

“They’re complaining about not getting enough judges through,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday. “How can we put them through if they aren’t up here?”

“I think that’s an absurd argument,” White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler said in response. “They have to confirm the people who are up there waiting to be confirmed before it does us any good to nominate another 30 people who then sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee and sit on the Senate floor waiting another 150 days awaiting confirmation.”

In a media call Tuesday, Ruemmler cited the same statistics used by Senate Democrats, including this nugget: The Senate has quickly confirmed judicial nominees at one time in the past, most recently in 2002, when 18 judges earned a confirmation vote as a bloc “in a matter of minutes.”

“They could approve these judges in five minutes,” Reid said Tuesday.

It appears instead that the Senate could fight about this for days.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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