Raising the partisan temperature in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday used a parliamentary tactic designed to end a Republican filibuster against 17 of President Barack Obama's judicial nominees.
Reid, whose move infuriated Republicans, has been complaining for months about the slow pace of confirmations of the president's picks for the federal bench.
Republicans have argued the pace is consistent with Democratic approvals of former President George W. Bush's court nominees. They also have said Obama has been slow to nominate people to fill judicial vacancies.
Reid filed a petition for cloture, which would limit debate and force a vote on the nominees. However, he would need a super majority of 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, and Democrats only have 51, plus two independents who caucus with the party. The procedure would require 17 separate votes _ one for each judge _ to limit debate and force an up-or-down vote. The votes are likely by Wednesday.
Reid said he ran out of patience because "the endless obstructionism" has left many federal courts "strained at the breaking point under a backlog so intense an emergency has been declared" by the judiciary.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said judicial confirmations are not stalled, and called Reid's maneuver "a ploy by the majority leader to build political rhetoric for the president. When the Senate works cooperatively to get things done, and it's rewarded by a political stunt like this, the American people should be concerned."
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said his party has been angry since Obama on Jan. 4 made four appointments without Senate approval, justifying the move on grounds the Senate was in recess. Republicans argued the Senate never recessed, and the appointments were unconstitutional.
Liberal groups and Democratic senators have been pushing Reid to try to force votes on the nominees, in an effort to get Obama's court choices on the bench with lifetime jobs.
Republicans and Democrats have used different numbers and time frames to argue whether the pace of confirmations is on par with approvals of Bush's nominees. Twenty-two nominations are pending, including 16 who cleared the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. Eleven of the 22 are in districts considered judicial emergencies because of backlogs.
Reid, if successful, would force a vote for the 17 district court nominees before the Senate, but not the five appellate court nominees. Appellate choices receive more detailed scrutiny because appeals courts are often the last word in deciding major issues _ or are the last stop before a case reaches the Supreme Court.
"I urge Senate Republicans not to give way to political temptation by continuing to obstruct these district court nominations," Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "Senators should debate, and then vote, on these non-controversial nominations, and not needlessly delay them any longer."