Senate Republicans have signaled that they will block further votes on White House nominations for some top federal courts until after the November presidential election, a move Democrats decry as partisan obstructionism that will strain a judicial system already suffering a backlog of vacancies.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has decided to essentially shut down the voting process for pending or future circuit court judge nominations in the hope that GOP presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney will win the White House and appoint his own candidates.
The Democrat-controlled Senate has confirmed 30 of President Obama's 43 circuit court judge nominations since he took office in January 2009 — a confirmation rate of 70 percent, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Democratic office says. The chamber also confirmed 121 of his 154 district court judge nominations, a rate of 78.6 percent.
In contrast, during the same period of President George W. Bush's administration, the Senate confirmed 60.4 percent of his circuit court judge nominations and 85.5 percent of district judge nominees.
Judicial nominees require a simple majority of the Senate's 100 members for confirmation. But Mr. McConnell could force a filibuster that would require 60 votes to break — a task that the Senate's 53-member coalition would find difficult.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy called Mr. McConnell's threat a "shutdown" and said Senate Republican leaders did the same thing during the final months of President Clinton's first and second terms.
"I have yet to hear any good reason why we should not continue to vote on well-qualified, consensus nominees, just as we did up until September of the last two presidential election years," the Vermont Democrat said.
Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said Senate Republicans have given "one excuse after another" during the past 3 1/2 years to prevent Obama judicial nominees from getting final up-or-down votes.
"Now, they are trotting out a false and misleading 'rule' that even a cursory glance at the historical record shows is a myth," she said. "The American people are growing tired of partisan games."
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Judiciary Committee Republican, fired back, saying that abstaining from judicial nominations during the final months of a president's term was common. He said this year's five circuit court confirmations is on par, or higher, than recent presidential election years.
Mr. Grassley added that Republicans still are willing to consider votes on nominations for the more common and generally less contentious district court nominees.
"It's disingenuous to suggest that Senate Republicans have not been fair in the consideration and confirmation of judicial nominees," he said.
The so-called "Thurmond Rule" is an informal and amorphous practice to halt lifetime judicial appointments during the final months of a presidential term. The phrase originated with the now-deceased Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who opposed President Johnson's nomination of Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice in 1968.
Republicans often call the practice the "Thurmond-Leahy Rule" because the Vermont Democrat supported the tactic during the Bush administration.
"I don't think [Mr. Leahy] has much of a leg to stand on," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice. "Leahy is very good at, shall we say, feigning outrage."
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Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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