WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked President Barack Obama's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, partly as payback for the Democrats' past opposition to Republican nominees.
Republicans portrayed Caitlin Halligan as a liberal activist, while Democrats argued she had outstanding qualifications for the seat that has been vacant since John Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court.
The vote was 54-45, short of the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to break a filibuster.
Halligan is general counsel in the Manhattan district attorney's office and formerly was the New York State solicitor general.
The Republican opposition reignited the furious political debate over judicial nominations, just as the issue had appeared to slightly calm down the past several months. Since September, the Senate confirmed five of President Obama's appellate nominees – four of them unanimously – and 19 U.S. district judges.
Obama, in a statement, said he was "deeply disappointed" with the "Republican pattern of obstructionism that puts party ahead of country. Today's vote dramatically lowers the bar used to justify a filibuster."
He added that Senate Republicans "are blocking 20 other highly qualified judicial nominees, half of whom I have nominated to fill vacancies deemed `judicial emergencies' by the Administrative Office of the Courts."
This wasn't the first time Republicans have blocked an appellate nominee this year. Last May, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster against Goodwin Liu as the nominee for the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He's now on the California Supreme Court.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "there is a lot at stake with nominations to this (D.C. Circuit) court" because its judges have frequently been considered – and elevated – to the Supreme Court. Halligan is 44.
Grassley then launched into the partisan history of the Republican attempt to fill the seat after Roberts left the District of Columbia appellate court.
President George W. Bush in June 2006 nominated Peter Keisler, who served as a top Justice Department official and for a time was acting attorney general.
"Mr. Keisler was eminently qualified to serve on that court," Grassley said. "He had a distinguished academic and professional record. Despite his qualifications, Mr. Keisler waited 918 days for a committee vote, which never came."
Grassley said six of Bush's nominees, including Roberts, endured "delays, filibusters, multiple hearings, and other forms of obstruction."
He contended that Halligan signed a report by New York City's bar association panel that objected to military detentions of suspected terrorists. Grassley said Halligan had a role in state lawsuits "attempting to hold handgun manufacturers liable for criminal acts committed with handguns."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. warned, "The approach taken by Senate Republicans will have lasting consequences beyond this one."
He said this filibuster was likely the final blow to a 2005 agreement by 14 senators – 9 still serving – to only filibuster judicial nominees under extraordinary circumstances. In the Liu nomination, several Republicans argued he was so liberal that extraordinary circumstances were present.
But while Democrats acknowledged Liu's liberalism, they argued that Halligan's positions were in the mainstream.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said, "This should be a consensus nomination, not a source of controversy and contention." He said letters of support from prominent individuals "attest to the fact that she is not a closed-minded ideologue, but is the kind of nominee who has demonstrated not only legal talent but also a dedication to the rule of law throughout her career.
"Concocted controversies and a blatant misreading of Ms. Halligan's record as an advocate are no reason to obstruct this outstanding nomination," Leahy said.
The only Republican to break with her party and support ending the filibuster was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
She said that judicial nominees deserve an up-or-down vote except in extraordinary circumstances. She added, "I did not support Ms. Halligan's candidacy and would never have voted for her confirmation."