Senate Republicans blocked another of President Obama's picks to serve on a key federal court in Washington on Monday evening, continuing a years-long dispute about appellate court nominees that is sure to revive talk about changing the rules of the Senate.
By a vote of 53 to 38, with one senator voting present, senators came up seven votes short of the 60 needed to proceed to a final confirmation vote for Robert Leon Wilkins to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court is generally considered the second-most powerful federal court in the country because it handles most cases regarding federal regulations.
Two Republican senators, Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), voted with Democrats to proceed with debate on the nomination. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) voted present.
In a statement after the vote, President Obama said "I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans have once again refused to do their job and give well-qualified nominees to the federal bench the yes-or-no votes they deserve."
In a call to supporters focused on the Affordable Care Act Monday night, Obama hinted that he faced a bigger fight.
“Someone of you may be aware that we have had problems throughout my term with Senate Republicans blocking my judicial nominations,” Obama said. “That kind of obstruction is unprecedented.”
“It’s really time for Senate Republicans to stop playing partisan politics in the courts,” Obama said. “This is an issue that may get more attention in the coming days and weeks.”
The D.C. Circuit court has three vacancies, including the seat that Wilkins has been nominated to fill, but Republicans have said in recent years that the court’s caseload is not heavy enough to warrant appointments ahead of other appeals court circuits, especially several in Western states with more significant vacancies. But Democrats want to fill the vacancies on the D.C.-based court because it tilts more conservative when six senior judges — five of whom were appointed by Republicans — are included in the court’s mix. Those judges continue to hear some cases.
The latest skirmish over the court began in late October when Republicans blocked the confirmation of Patricia Millett, a prominent Supreme Court lawyer, to serve on the court. It continued last week when they blocked the nomination of Nina Pillard. The opposition prompted the chamber's most liberal senators to once again call for a change in how the Senate confirms executive branch and judicial nominations, saying that GOP senators continue to needlessly block qualified picks for political purposes.
Judicial filibusters are a rare way to block a nominee, but both parties have used them in the past, especially to block nominees to the D.C. court.
Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.