Obama picks fight with Senate Republicans over judicial nominations

President Obama on Tuesday opened a new fight with Senate Republicans over judicial nominations.

Obama nominated three people to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — widely considered a steppingstone to the Supreme Court — and all but dared the Senate GOP to filibuster them.

“What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job,” Obama said from the White House.

Obama tapped U.S. District Court Judge Robert Leon Wilkins, Georgetown Law professor Cornelia Pillard and attorney Patricia Ann Millett to serve on the 11-member court.

Both Millett and Pillard have litigated before the Supreme Court, while Wikins, a district judge in D.C., was unanimously confirmed in 2010.

“There’s no reason aside from politics for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up-or-down vote,” Obama said at what The Associated Press reported was his first press event to announce nominees to the court.

That highlighted Obama’s desire to pick a fight with the GOP over the issue, which shifts the story away from a series of controversies dogging his administration and also pleases his most fervent supporters, who have been frustrated with Senate Republican filibusters on judicial nominees.

Republicans quickly fired back at Obama.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a centrist who has been courted by the White House for a debt compromise, said Obama’s tactic on judges threatens to undermine efforts to reach a compromise in the Senate on immigration and the budget.

“There is no basis for the president inventing these crises. It’s unpresidential. It’s embarrassing to me,” he said. 

He said that Obama got 19 judges confirmed this year, many more than President George W. Bush in his first term. 

“Why doesn’t he fire his campaign manager and put his chief of staff in charge and start fixing the debt and dealing with immigration and quit inventing crises?” Alexander said. “He is losing any capacity he will have for Republican support for important issues by these kind of tactics.”

The White House sees multiple advantages in picking a fight over the judicial nominees. 

The D.C. Circuit Court has a conservative tilt, and the president is eager to fill the seats with justices more in line with his judicial and political philosophy.

The court is likely to hear challenges to the implementation of ObamaCare, Wall Street reform and new environmental regulations, all of which the president hopes to ensure are not gutted.

Democrats have been dismayed by recent rulings that struck down air pollution regulations and invalidated the president’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

The president has filled only a quarter of the vacancies on the court since the beginning of his presidency, and there are some 79 vacancies across the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal system.

But Republicans have repeatedly resisted the president’s nominees, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying last week that Democrats were looking “to pack the D.C. Circuit with appointees” after a series of rulings the president disagreed with. 

Obama shot back on Tuesday, insisting, “We’re not adding seats here, we’re trying to fill seats that are already existing.”

Republicans have also argued the court’s workload has fallen and its size could be shrunk to eight members.

That idea also received a fiery rebuke from the president, who noted that a judicial review overseen by Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the Court would operate better at full capacity.

“The fact that Republican senators are now pushing a proposal to reduce the number of justices on this court also makes no sense. ... People are laughing because it’s obviously a blatant political move,” he said.

The nominations could also prime a political fight over the so-called “nuclear option,” which would change the Senate’s rules to weaken the minority party’s ability to filibuster. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to bring the three nominees before the Senate simultaneously.

If Republicans decide to filibuster the trio, it could open the door for Democrats to trigger rules changes that would reduce the 60-vote threshold regularly needed to approve judicial nominees.

McConnell blasted Reid several times on Tuesday for threatening to change the rules, arguing the threat violated a public promise Reid had made. He linked Reid’s threats to a “culture of intimidation” that included the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative activists.

“We don’t intend to be intimidated by him with a constant threat to break the rules in order to change the rules. If that’s what’s going to happen, we want to know it now, not some other time — now,” he said.

But if Republicans relent and allow a vote, the nominees would presumably be confirmed, and Democrats would shift the ideological tilt of the D.C. Circuit.

This story was posted at 11:11 a.m. and updated at 12:10 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.