In a move that could signal the end of judicial confirmations until after Election Day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected today to an effort by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to seek agreement to confirm 17 district court judges.
Reid argued that 14 of the 17 nominees were approved by voice vote in the Judiciary Committee.
"What that means [is] they're noncontroversial," he said in an exchange on the floor with McConnell. Reid added that 12 of the judges would be filling emergency vacancies.
"These are places around the country where we have judges who are tremendously overworked on these cases," Reid said.
Despite those pleas, McConnell objected to a unanimous consent agreement, noting that Senate confirmations of President Barack Obama's judicial nominees have been on par with those of President George W. Bush's nominees. So far during Obama's term, Republicans said, the Senate has confirmed 158 of the president's 205 judicial picks, a confirmation rate of 77 percent. President Bush got only 74 of percent of his nominees during his first term. McConnell said he would allow confirmation of two judges, but not 17.
"The president is being treated very fairly and I am happy to continue to work with the Majority Leader, but we cannot allow the majority to jam us here at the end of our session," McConnell said.
"We're trying to get consent agreements to process the next two district court nominations that are in the queue and we are hoping that will come about," McConnell continued. "That is the procedure we've been following. I'm hopeful we can achieve that."
The Minority Leader was referencing an agreement reached in March to process 14 judicial nominees, about two per week. Democrats, who claimed the GOP was dragging its feet on judicial nominations, forced the deal by threatening to take up 17 nominations one by one, a process that would have tied up the Senate floor for weeks.
Senate GOP aides would not rule out a package of nominations, including judicial appointees, being completed before the end of the session, a common practice in the chamber.
But with the elections looming, Republicans may opt to put the brakes on nominations so that the next president can seek to put his nominees in place.
Reid said he was disappointed by the Republicans' move.
"No matter how you juggle the numbers, we still have 12 emergencies," Reid said. "I would hope that my friends on the other side would at least look at some of those emergencies and see if we could get some help for those beleaguered and their court personnel."
In June, McConnell called for a blockade on circuit court judges beginning in July,a practice he said was set by Democrats when they were in the minority.
The move is one the minority has historically made in election years. Named after the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) - and alternately called the "Leahy rule" by some Republicans after Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) - the doctrine holds that within six months of a presidential election, the opposition party can, and typically does, refuse to allow votes on circuit court judges.
Reid acknowledged that "Democrats have set boundaries in the past" regarding circuit court judges, but said the 17 judges he sought to confirm were district court jurists.
"Historically, the Senate has considered district court nominees as late as October in presidential election years," Reid said. "Our Republican friends are setting new standards for obstruction."
Leahy added, "Senate Republicans have raised the level of partisanship so that these federal trial court nominees have now become wrapped around the axle of partisanship."