Senate Republicans on Thursday filibustered one of President Obama’s nominees to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, arguing that although the woman is well-qualified, confirmation would allow Democrats to shift the political balance to the left on the country’s second most important court.
The vote was the latest skirmish in the fierce though usually behind-the-scenes battle over federal judgeships, which are increasingly becoming a part of the political spoils system.
Republicans accused Democrats of trying to pack the court by adding Patricia Millett to the bench, saying Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, are still smarting from several rebukes the court has dealt to their agenda, including a high-profile decision ruling the president’s recess appointments unconstitutional.
“They think they can shift the balance there and be able to advance their agenda throughout the judicial process,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who was an early casualty of the judicial wars when Democrats blocked his nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986.
Democrats — Mr. Reid in particular — have been open about their desire to flip the court to a more liberal ideological slant. In an interview with NPR this summer, the majority leader said he was furious with the panel that ruled against Mr. Obama’s recess appointments and called its three judges “terrible.”
“We need at least one more. There’s three vacancies, we need at least one more and that will switch the majority,” Mr. Reid said in that interview.
The court is slated for 11 full judges but now seats just eight: four appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats. The court also has six senior judges who can hear cases, but just one of those was appointed by a Democratic president.
“Making nominations to vacant judgeships is not court-packing. It’s the president’s job,” he said on the Senate floor.
He praised Ms. Millett as someone who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, and pointed to her support from top lawyers in both political parties as evidence that she deserves to be on the court.
Joining Democrats in backing Ms. Millett were two Republicans: Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, but that still left Democrats well shy of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Three Republicans voted “present.”
Ms. Millett wasn’t the only nominee delayed by a filibuster Thursday. Republicans also blocked Rep. Melvin L. Watt, North Carolina Democrat, whom Mr. Obama tapped to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans said they wanted someone immersed in the key financial issues, rather than a politician, to take the post.
The Republican moves reignited questions about whether Democrats will use the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters.
Speaking with reporters this week, Mr. Reid was coy about whether he would trigger the nuclear option.