WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is set to confirm one of President Barack Obama's key judicial nominees and complete an overhaul of the country's second most powerful court.
The late afternoon vote Monday on the nomination of Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia would give Democratic appointees a 7-4 majority on the politically influential bench. The D.C. Circuit, second only to the Supreme Court, hears appeals of White House actions and federal rules and regulations.
Wilkins' confirmation would be a new demonstration of Senate Democrats' ability to push through most presidential nominations by a simple majority. It also comes on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments about a constitutional provision relating to temporary presidential appointments. At issue is Obama's use of the provision to make so-called recess appointments.
Republicans resistance to many Obama nominees, including judges, prompted Democrats in November to change years of Senate filibuster tradition. Instead of requiring 60 votes to move nominations forward, the Senate can advance almost all presidential nominees on a simple majority vote. The only exceptions are nominees to the Supreme Court.
The change has made Wilkins' confirmation almost certain. Seating him will further tilt the D.C. Circuit. In a just over a month, the Senate has confirmed two other Obama nominees to the court, Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard.
Republicans again criticized the rules changes on Monday, though they said little about Wilkins' credentials.
"Our politics today desperately need the cooling saucer of the Senate," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The action by the majority leader to make it easier to consider nominations on a purely partisan basis went in the wrong direction."
Republicans and Democrats have bitterly fought over appointments to the D.C. Circuit. But none disputes the court's influence, which stems from its caseload and its reputation as something of a proving ground for the Supreme Court. Four of the high court's justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, previously served on the D.C. Circuit.
Until recently, the court had been a source of frustration for Obama.
Republicans repeatedly blocked his first nominee to it, Caitlin Halligan, until she withdrew her nomination. Sri Srinivasan was confirmed to the court in May, but Republican senators promised to stop any further nominees to the court. They said the bench did not have enough work to warrant filling its vacancies.
In November, under old procedures, Senate Republicans had blocked Wilkins' nomination. Furious, Democrats noted that Wilkins had been confirmed for a district judgeship in 2010 by a voice vote.
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