Reset the 'Nuclear' Clocks as Judicial Wars Loom

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate's gearing up for the judicial wars to return in earnest next week, with Majority Leader Harry Reid working to fill seats on a D.C.-based federal court that many Republicans want to remain vacant.

The Nevada Democrat could move to limit debate on the first of those pending nominations early next week, according to a Senate source. That would likely be President Barack Obama's pick of Patricia Ann Millett, a prominent appellate lawyer in the D.C. area.

Opposition to Millett has less to do with the nominee than with Republicans objecting to anyone taking the seat, making arguments about what they say is the light caseload of the court. Of course, filling the three current positions could tip the balance of power on the court and give it a more liberal bent.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said during Millett's confirmation hearing that her nomination would be part of a bigger dispute.

"You find yourself in the midst of a broader battle, and a battle on issues, many of which are unconnected to your professional background and qualifications, about issues that sadly have consumed the D.C. Circuit for decades," Cruz said.

It appears the time for that standoff is fast approaching.

Cruz's fellow Texan, Republican Whip John Cornyn, said in an opinion piece on the Fox News website this week that GOP senators should line up to block the nominations.

"Republicans should remain united in blocking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attempt to pack the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is America’s second-most-influential judicial body," Cornyn wrote.

Such a move would no doubt renew calls for Reid and other Senate Democrats to revisit the use of a "nuclear option" to change the Senate's practice regarding nominations with a simple majority vote.

Democrats point out that Millett would fill the seat vacated by the elevation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. Roberts was initially confirmed to the appeals court by voice vote. Democrats also have pushed back against the allegation that Obama is trying to "pack the court," by noting these are existing vacancies and not newly created positions.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has long pushed for taking the steps needed to fill all three of the seats on the D.C. appeals court.