WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans on Monday blocked President Barack Obama's nomination of Robert L. Wilkins to a key appellate court, continuing a nomination fight that has stoked partisan tensions in the Senate.
Wilkins, a District Court judge in Washington who in 2010 was confirmed by the Senate on a voice vote, was nominated to fill one of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He is the third straight nominee to the powerful court that Republicans have stopped from being seated.
The Senate voted 53-38 in favor of ending Republican-led delays, falling short of the 60 votes required to advance Wilkins' nomination. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine voted with Democrats to end debate.
The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is often referred to as the second most powerful court in the country, after the Supreme Court. Informally known as the D.C. circuit, the court's influence stems from its caseload — it rules on administration orders and regulations — and because some of its judges become Supreme Court justices. The D.C. circuit currently has eight active judges evenly divided between Democratic and Republican nominees.
Obama called Monday's vote "completely unprecedented" obstruction.
"Four of my predecessor's six nominees to the D.C. Circuit were confirmed," Obama said in a statement. "Four of my five nominees to this court have been obstructed. When it comes to judicial nominations, I am fulfilling my constitutional responsibility, but Congress is not."
Blocking Wilkins nomination prompted immediate calls from some Democrats to change Senate rules to make it harder for the minority party to block nominations. Several said they had grown frustrated by GOP efforts to stop Obama's nominees.
On the Senate floor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said blocking nominees like Wilkins could inspire Democrats to consider limiting debate on Obama's nominations.
"This kind of delay for the sake of delay, this kind of treating this president different from other presidents, that is why there's momentum toward a change in our rules," Leahy said.
And after the vote, two Democratic senators, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, joined House members of the Congressional Black Caucus and said they would support changes to Senate rules.
In late October, Republicans blocked attorney Patricia Millet' nomination to fill a vacancy on the D.C. circuit court and earlier this month, the GOP blocked Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard from filling another vacancy on the court.
Seating judges to the D.C. circuit has proven particularly problematic for Obama. Republicans blocked his first nominee to the court, Caitlin Halligan, who eventually withdrew her nomination. Sri Srinivasan was confirmed to the court earlier this year, but Republicans vowed to block any further nominees to the court, saying it had too light a caseload.
Obama responded in June by nominating Millet, Pillard and Wilkins.
Republicans accused Democrats of wasting the Senate's time.
"The fact of the matter is that the D.C. circuit is underworked," said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.