WASHINGTON -- As the Senate inches closer to a potentially explosive filibuster fight this summer, top party leaders sparred Wednesday over just how much Republicans have been jamming President Barack Obama's nominees since he took office.
During floor remarks, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took direct aim at threats by Democrats to use the so-called "nuclear option" to change Senate rules to require a simple majority, versus 60 votes, to clear a procedural hurdle ahead of debate on a nominee's confirmation. McConnell downplayed the idea that there has been any real problem with the nomination process thus far. In fact, he said, the Senate has been "stunningly fair," confirming 19 of Obama's judicial nominees so far this year -- a contrast to the four judicial confirmations President George W. Bush had by this point in the first year of his second term.
"Let’s be clear. These threats to use the nuclear option because of obstruction are just pretexts for a power grab," McConnell said. "This is another example of the majority manufacturing a crisis to justify heavy-handed behavior."
It didn't take long before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared on the Senate floor to give a fuller context for McConnell's numbers -- and explain that GOP obstructionism is real.
"My friend, the Republican leader, talks about in Bush's second term, he didn't get many nominations. He didn't ... because we approved so many in the first," Reid said. "Just the opposite with President Obama."
Reid cited a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that found dramatic differences between the Senate's track record on judicial confirmations during Obama's first term and confirmations during former President George W. Bush's first term.
Among those differences, per the report: The median wait time for a Senate vote on Obama's district court nominees that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee was five times longer than Bush's. The wait was 7.3 times longer for Obama's circuit court nominees. For Obama's nominees that cleared the committee with unanimous support, the median wait time was 130.5 days, compared to 14 days for Bush's nominees.
"Fourteen days compared to 130.5 days? Things going along really well? I don't think so," Reid said. "There is no good reason for such unprecedented delays. Those are the facts."
The debate comes at a time when Senate Democrats are signaling they've hit their limit with Republicans slow-walking Obama's nominees. Reid is eyeing July for a renewed battle over filibuster rules and, per The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, reportedly has Obama's support if he chooses to move ahead with it. A Senate Democratic aide said Tuesday that the "plan is to wait until immigration is complete before engaging in total all-out nom[ination] fight."
Much of the party leaders' arguments on Wednesday, which went on for more than half an hour, centered on a specific judicial nominee who recently cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support: D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Sri Srinivasan. Reid has been pushing for an agreement to vote on Srinivasan's confirmation immediately, emphasizing the need to begin filling that court's four vacancies as soon as possible. But McConnell, citing a need to vote on other nominees ahead of Srinivasan on the calendar, wants to push the vote to June 4.
"Goodness. What is the difference between now and next week?" McConnell said, suggesting that Reid's urgency on Srinivasan is driven more by politics than any real crisis. "The whole purpose here is to stack the court. The real issue here is I guess he disagrees with the rulings on the D.C. Circuit."
Reid reiterated that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is still functioning without four judges, or with one-third of the bench vacant, and slammed McConnell's lax attitude on filling the court by comparing it to George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984.
"In that book, he talked about people coming to a time when whatever they said was just factually the opposite," he said. "Stacking the court with one person? I think not."