- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

President Obama’s perfect run of judicial nominees sailing through the Senate for confirmation in 2011 is facing its first challenge this week.

A procedural vote on the nomination of John J. McConnell Jr. for a federal district judgeship in Rhode Island could come to the Senate floor as early as Wednesday. And with Republicans opposed to the trial lawyer’s bid, he could be the president’s first pick for the federal bench to fail this year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Monday used a parliamentary tactic intended to overcome GOP resistance of Mr. McConnell. The cloture motion, rarely used for district judge nominees, limits debate but also requires the OK of at least 60 senators in the 100-seat chamber before the nomination could proceed toward a final vote.

Democrats control 53 seats in the Senate.

Historically, district court judge nominations sent from the White House to the Senate easily are confirmed with little or no debate. But during Mr. Obama’s first two years in office, Democrats complained that Senate Republicans routinely held up the president’s judicial nominations for months or longer.

In a gentleman’s agreement in January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, vowed to use the filibuster less often in exchange for a promise by Mr. Reid to allow Republicans more opportunities to offer amendments to legislation. Sen. McConnell is no relation to the nominee.

The deal seems to be paying dividends. So far this year, the Senate has confirmed a total of 19 judicial nominations - 17 district judges and two appeals court judges. All were approved unanimously or via a simple voice vote by the full Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee in March voted to send Mr. McConnell’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote. But unlike the 19 confirmed nominees that all passed out of the committee unanimously, Mr. McConnell was approved mostly along party lines. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the lone Republican to side with the panel’s Democrats in favor of the nominee, while no Democrats voted against him.

Republicans have questioned whether Mr. McConnell, who has been active in the Democratic Party, including a former stint as treasurer of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee, could be impartial enough to serve as a federal judge.

“Mr. McConnell is an active partisan, perhaps more so than any other nominee recently before this committee,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, during the panel’s review of Mr. McConnell in late March.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, another Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused Mr. McConnell of “perverting the rule of law” and said he lied to the panel regarding his role in a dispute over confidential documents his law firm obtained during a lawsuit against the Sherwin-Williams Co.

“Party affiliation aside, I don’t think the Senate as an institution should tolerate a nominee that intentionally misrepresents the facts in the context of a confirmation process,” Mr. Cornyn said.

But Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, on Tuesday called Mr. McConnell a “pillar of our community” with a “spotless record.” The senator added he fears the GOP’s attempt to block a vote on Mr. McConnell would set a bad precedent in the Senate.

“This is a serious issue,” Mr. Reed said. “I fear that we are on the precipice of taking a step that will come back to repeatedly haunt us and undercut the customs and traditions and a sense of this Senate, which is necessary to maintain, not to abandon.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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