President Barack Obama's nominees for the federal judiciary have stalled for months in part because of heated disagreement over a handful of nominees. Now, Senate Democrats are looking at forcing votes on four of them.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said today that Democrats could move soon to end debate on the nominees. He said that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was lining up support this morning for what’s known as a cloture petition — the necessary paperwork before holding a vote to end debate.
“He’s lining up the signatures,” Whitehouse said after a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Such a petition requires 16 signatures.
Whitehouse is a vocal supporter of one of the nominees who have drawn fire: John McConnell Jr., a Motley Rice partner who’s been nominated for federal district court in Rhode Island. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is opposing McConnell’s nomination, citing his work as a plaintiffs’ lawyer on lead paint litigation and other cases.
The other three nominees whom Reid is trying to force votes on, Whitehouse said, are Goodwin Liu for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Edward Chen for the Northern District of California and Louis Butler for the Western District of Wisconsin. Republicans have targeted all three because of what they call the nominees’ extreme views, while the nominees’ home-state senators and other supporters argue they’re being treated unfairly.
A fifth nominee whom Republicans oppose, Judge Robert Chatigny for the 2nd Circuit, is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A committee vote is planned for Thursday.
Though senators have many other priorities during their “lame duck” session, Whitehouse said he thinks there is time to consider the stalled nominees. Otherwise, he said, “there’d be no point getting the signatures” for the cloture petition.
Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate on a nominee or a bill, unless senators agree to waive a vote entirely. Democrats control 59 Senate seats until January unless Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who won both a full Senate term and a special election, is sworn in before then.
On Monday, conservatives sent a letter to Reid asking him not to force votes on any nominees between the midterm elections and the start of the next Congress. “Any ‘lame-duck’ confirmations would be a gross abuse of Congressional authority in a last gasp attempt to perpetuate an agenda that the American people have already rejected,” the letter says.
UPDATE (3:43 p.m.): A group of circuit and district court judges from the 9th Circuit sent a letter this week to Senate leaders asking for quicker action on nominees. The signatories include 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.
"In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission," the letter (PDF) says. "While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges."
UPDATE (4:42 p.m.): Kirk's swearing in would drop the Democrats' majority to 58 seats during the lame duck session.