WASHINGTON — The Senate was unable to break the election-year blockade of judicial nominees Monday as Republicans filibustered one of President Obama’s popular picks for appellate court in Oklahoma. That all but ensures no further such confirmations will be made by this Congress, including a vote on William J. Kayatta Jr., a Maine attorney, who has served as a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kayatta, of Cape Elizabeth, was nominated in January by Obama to replace Kermit Lipez, the only judge from Maine on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Boston. For months, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have been pressing GOP leadership for a floor vote on his nomination, but now that appears unlikely.
The filibuster showed that neither bipartisan support for nominees nor the shortage of judges in the nation’s legal system would prevent the partisan fighting that is defining the countdown to the November election. The conservative Heritage Foundation warned senators Monday’s vote would be counted on its scorecard of lawmakers’ performances.
Oklahoma Judge Robert E. Bacharach was a largely noncontroversial figure, backed the state’s two Republican senators. The Senate voted 56-34, failing to reach the 60-votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
The GOP blockade was not without discomfort. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the situation was awkward because Bacharach was so well received.
“I cannot vote against this guy,” Inhofe said. In an unusual move, Inhofe simply voted present, as did fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Three other Republicans voted to confirm the judge: Snowe, Collins, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who is in a tough reelection battle.
Republicans defended their decision to employ the so-called Thurmond rule — named after the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who in early 1980 refused President Carter’s judicial nominees — as a necessary “time out.” The intent was to allow the incoming president to make appointments for such lifetime judicial posts.
But the GOP is also still smarting from Obama’s recess appointments this year of nonjudicial nominees Republicans opposed. Coburn called the rule “stupid.”
Democrats decried the blockade as an unnecessary expression of partisanship in an election year. But under the George W. Bush administration, Democrats also made some use of the rule, which Republicans prefer to call the Leahy-Thurmond rule after the Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
“If ever there was an example of crocodile tears, this is it,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Leahy, though, said Monday’s action was the first time a judicial nominee with bipartisan support from the committee had been blocked. “What they are doing now is a first,” he said.
(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times
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