Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked one of President Obama's nominees to a powerful circuit court, enraging Democrats who threatened to use the "nuclear option" to advance her.
The Senate voted 55-38 against ending debate on the nomination of Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Democrats needed at least 60 votes to end the Republican filibuster.
The D.C. Circuit Court is seen by many as the second most powerful court in the land, and is at the center of fights over government regulations. Liberal groups have pushed President Obama to make filling the court's vacancies a priority during his second term.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warned that Millet's rejection could prompt Democrats to use the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules and ensure nominees can't be blocked.
"If Republicans are going to hold qualified individuals hostage we will have major changes," Leahy said ahead of the vote.
Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) were the only Republicans joining Democrats in voting for the cloture motion.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Obama of trying to “pack the court” with judges that will approve of his “big government” agenda.
“They’ve admitted they want to control the court to advance the president’s agenda,” McConnell said ahead of the vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Obama is simply doing his job by nominating judges to fill vacancies and that Millett is more than qualified for the position because she heads up Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump. He voted against the cloture motion as a procedural move so that he could call up her nomination again.
“She has argued more than 32 cases before the highest court in the land,” Reid said. “It is truly a shame that Republicans would filibuster this exceedingly qualified nominee for unrelated political reasons.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Millett was an "extraordinarily qualified nominee" and that Republican votes to block her was "astoundingly hypocritical."
Many Republicans have said they don't think the panel needs additional judges to handle the current case load. But Carney noted during the Bush Administration, Republicans voted to fill the same seats when the case load was half what it is today.
Carney refused to comment on whether the president supported employing the so-called "nuclear option" to force nominees through the Senate, saying they would "defer to Sen. Reid."
"We would simply like to see our highly qualified nominees conferred," Carney said.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have advocated reallocating two of the three judicial vacancies on the D.C. Appellate Court to other courts that have judicial emergencies because of heavier backlogs of cases.
“I will not vote to end debate now because I think such a vote would be premature,” Alexander said. “Before the Senate has an up-or-down vote on the three judges, there’s something else we ought to do first. We should first consider the bipartisan proposal that was made 10 years ago to have the right number of judges on this federal appellate court.”
Former President George W. Bush reduced the number of D.C. Circuit judges by one seat during his presidency after senators argued that the caseload wasn’t as great as that of the Ninth Circuit.
Reid said the claim that Democrats are trying to pack the court is “ridiculous.”
“Making nominations to vacant judgeships is not court-packing. It’s the president’s job,” Reid said.
The Senate has worked all week on executive branch nominees, clearing Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communications Commission, Richard Griffin to be general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board and Alan Estevez to be a [rincipal deputy undersecretary of Defense.
But Republicans were unwilling to allow Millett's judicial nomination to move forward. They also blocked Mel Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
— Justin Sink contributed to this story, which was updated at 3:17 p.m.