A Senate panel on Thursday approved a key nominee for one of the country’s most powerful courts, handing President Obama a victory in his push to fill federal judicial vacancies.

Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan, who President Obama has nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo: US Department of Justice)

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Sri Srinivasan, the principal deputy solicitor general, for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is one notch below the Supreme Court and considers most legal challenges to executive actions. The nomination will be referred to the full Senate.

The court has four Republican and three Democratic appointees and four vacancies, and filling slots on the bench has proven difficult for Obama. During his first term, the court blocked rules to curb interstate air pollution and enhance cigarette labeling while delaying decisions on workers’ rights.

Before the vote, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) called Srinivasan "a talented attorney" and said he embodies "the correct judicial temperament" to serve on the court.

But Grassley and other Republicans on the panel expressed concerns with recent press reports and op-eds suggesting that Obama is seeking to pack the appeals court with liberal-leaning justices. Citing the court's lighter workload when compared to other federal courts, Republican senators said they will need to be convinced that other vacancies need to be immediately filled.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a former federal law clerk, also said he would reintroduce legislation reducing the number of seats on the court.

Srinivasan is a Stanford University graduate who worked in President George W. Bush’s solicitor general’s office for five years before returning there under Obama in 2011. As Thursday's vote proved, he enjoys bipartisan support and the support of 12 former solicitors general and principal deputy solicitors general — six Democrats and six Republicans — who recently co-signed a letter backing his nomination.

The committee also approved Jennifer Dorsey, a nominee for a Nevada district court, by a vote of 10 to 8 and unanimously approved Raymond Chen, who is a nominee to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

After Thursday's votes, 12 federal judicial nominees now await full Senate consideration, including three that would fill "emergency vacancies" as defined by the federal court system, according to Democratic committee staffers.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost