But three months later, the Oklahoman newspaper reported that Coburn was withholding the blue slip required of home-state senators, in effect delaying confirmation hearings on Bacharach. After Coburn dropped his objections, Senate Republicans filibustered the nomination in July, saying it was too close to a presidential election.
“Even when we have a nominee for a circuit court that came from a Republican senator that was reported unanimously, it has taken almost a year to get that person confirmed,” said Ruemmler, the White House counsel.
Last month, when Bacharach eventually made it to the Senate floor for a vote, more than a year after he had been nominated, he was confirmed, 93 to 0.
The system has become so bogged down that Supreme Court justices — regardless of whether their appointment came from a Democrat or Republican — have urged the Senate and the White House to fix it.
John Roberts, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, had his own nomination to the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2001 delayed for two years because of partisan opposition. He then left that seat in 2005 after being nominated by then-President George W. Bush to the Supreme Court and it remains vacant. He has decried what he has called “a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies.”
“Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes,” Roberts said in a 2010 state of the judiciary report. “This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was even more blunt.
“I’m hoping there will be members of Congress who will say enough,” she said at a February meeting of Association of Business Trial Lawyers. “We are destroying the United States’ reputation in the world as a beacon of democracy, and we should go back to the way it was, and the way it should be.”
Shutting off the debate
On a recent Wednesday morning, snow coated the Capitol and a quiet Senate chamber slowly began to come to life. Pages stood at doors, ready to open them for senators. A television technician made sure the cameras could capture the speeches, and glasses of water were filled at senators’ desks.
The Senate chaplain rose to offer a prayer. “Inspire our senators this day to use wisely the fragile time they have. . . . Show them your mighty power in these challenging times,” he said softly.
The Senate majority leader, who next took control of the floor, had a different wish.
“I do hope, for the sake of the country, the obstruction of the last two Congresses will vanish,” Reid said.
For the second time in two years, the Senate was planning to vote on Caitlin J. Halligan, who is the general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney’s office and has been Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy created on the court when John Roberts was elevated to the Supereme Court on Sept. 29, 2005.
After graduating from Georgetown Law School, Halligan was a clerk in the D.C. Circuit, for Judge Patricia Wald, and then for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The American Bar Association gave her its highest rating of “well qualified.”
Obama first nominated Halligan in 2010, but the Senate never voted on her. He nominated her again in 2011, but 11 months later Republicans filibustered her nomination on the Senate floor. He nominated her in 2012, and again in January.
On that Wednesday morning, it had become clear that Republicans were planning to filibuster the vote. They not only wanted to vote against her, they didn’t want to allow a vote on her nomination to take place at all. To confirm her would take 50 votes, but to shut off debate first would take 60 votes.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who has been in the Senate for 16 years, said the Republican arguments were “as empty as any argument I have heard on the floor of the Senate.”
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “It’s troubling.”
McConnell went through a litany of problems he had with her as a nominee. He criticized “her zeal for these frivolous lawsuits” and called her a “textbook example of judicial activism.”
“Giving her a lifetime appointment,” McConnell said, “is a bridge too far.”
As Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, rose to speak, McConnell began to leave the room.
“There ought to be more comity,” he added. “This is nothing about Ms. Halligan, but it is about keeping the D.C. Circuit vacant and not allowing our President to rightfully fill those vacancies.”Continued...