By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a third nominee by President Barack Obama to the same federal appeals court, prompting a renewed warning by Democrats of a possible rules change to end such procedural roadblocks.
"I think we are at the point where there will have to be a rules change," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
But it was unclear if Democrats, who control the Senate, 55-45, could muster the 51 votes needed for such dramatic a rules change, which would immediately alter the way the Senate operates.
Republicans would likely retaliate to any attempt by Democrats to end their ability to block nominees with procedural hurdles known as filibusters.
Still, changing the rules to end the filibuster with 51 votes, rather than the 60 votes now required, is being considered by Senate Democratic leaders, but has not yet been formally brought up for consideration by rank-and-file members, aides said.
Republicans predict that Democrats will back off, knowing a rules change would hurt Democrats if Republicans regain control of the Senate, which could occur in next year's mid-term election.
On Tuesday, on a 56-41 vote, Democrats failed to end a Republican filibuster against the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Pollard had served in the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton,
On October 31, Democrats fell short 55-38 in a vote to end a filibuster against the nomination to the same court of Patricia Millett, who had worked for Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush.
In March, Obama withdraw the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the court after Republicans filibustered the former solicitor general of the state of New York.
Republicans hailed the filibusters as victories in their bid to stop Obama from turning the court into a rubber stamp for his administration.
Democrats denounced the votes as unwarranted attacks on a president trying to fulfill his responsibility to fill court vacancies.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is considered the country's second most important court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of 13 circuit courts of appeals, it handles cases involving federal regulatory issues, the role of government and the separation of powers between Congress and the president.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, threatened a rules change in July to win the confirmation of seven of Obama's executive branch nominees.
Reid dropped the threat after a bipartisan deal was reached to fill the seven posts.
Reid is again threatening a rules change, aides said, and this time he may do it.
With Congress's approval rating at a record low and no indication that Republicans are willing to compromise with Obama on much of anything, Reid figures he has nothing to lose, aides said.
Republicans will undoubtedly strike back if Reid strips them of their ability to block executive branch and judicial nominees. But Reid assumes that voters, who polls show are disgusted with Congress, won't be upset if he changes the rules to get some things done, the congressional aides said.
Reid also figures that if does not change the rules now, that anti-compromise Republicans will probably do it if they win control of the Senate, they added.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of holding the Tuesday's vote merely to rally their liberal base and to divert attention from Obama's embattled healthcare law.
"We will not be voting on legislation to allow Americans to keep their health insurance if they like it," McConnell said. "Rather, we will be voting on a nominee to a court that doesn't have enough work to do."
Democrats argued that the court needs additional judges, noting that the 11-member bench has three vacancies.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois declined to predict if fellow Democrats would vote to change the rules, but added, "I've had it."
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)