By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins won Senate confirmation to a key federal appeals court on Monday, two months after Republicans initially blocked President Barack Obama's nomination of the Harvard-educated jurist.
Wilkins prevailed on this second try after Obama's Democrats changed the Senate rules last month to strip Republicans of their power to stop most of his picks with procedural roadblocks known as filibusters.
Republicans called the rule change an unwarranted power grab. Democrats said they did it to end unprecedented Republican obstructionism.
On a party-line vote of 55-43, the Senate confirmed Wilkins to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Under the old rules, such a margin would have prevented Wilkins from being confirmed.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said, "As we begin 2014, I hope we can set aside our differences and do what is best for this country by confirming qualified nominees to fill critical vacancies facing our federal judiciary."
Democrats, who hold the Senate, 55-45, changed the rules in December to reduce from 60 to a simple majority the number of votes needed to end filibusters against most of Obama's nominees.
On November 18, under the old rules, Wilkins was blocked, 53-38, seven short of the then needed 60.
Wilkins has served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2011. He earlier served as a private attorney and a public defender. He graduated from Harvard law school in 1989.
Wilkins became Obama's third pick to the D.C. Circuit to be confirmed since the rule change.
The D.C. circuit is considered the nation's second most powerful court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of 13 circuit courts, it handles challenges of federal regulations, including those involving healthcare, the environment and the financial industry.
Republicans have accused Obama of packing the D.C. circuit in an effort to get favorable rulings from it.
Democrats say Obama merely carried out his duties to fill what had been the three vacancies on the D.C. circuit with highly qualified candidates.
Wilkins, like the two other nominees confirmed to the court, had received the American Bar Association's top rating for the job.
Republicans argued that the D.C. Circuit does not have enough work to merit another judge. Democrats disagreed. They said its workload is more than when the Senate filled the 11-member court by confirming four of Republican President George W. Bush's nominees.
Regardless, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said: "This judgeship wasn't warranted" before Democrats changed the rules, and "it certainly hasn't suddenly become warranted in the weeks since that time."
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Richard Chang)