WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) insisted Wednesday that he's not blocking one of his own judicial nominees for political reasons -- even as he is still refusing to give the Senate Judiciary Committee the green light to give that nominee a hearing.
Toomey has been getting pummeled back home for the Senate's delay in confirming Luis Felipe Restrepo to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. President Barack Obama nominated Restrepo in November with Toomey's strong support, but the nomination hasn't moved since. In the meantime, the vacancy he would fill has been deemed a "judicial emergency," which means the court is drowning in cases.
The Republican senator is being blamed because he hasn't turned in his "blue slip," an indicator to the Judiciary Committee chairman that Toomey is ready to move forward with the nominee. The committee won't move forward on any nominee until it has the blessing of both home-state senators. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) turned in his blue slip for Restrepo in November.
That leaves Toomey as the holdout.
But he fired back at critics Wednesday, saying the only reason he hasn't turned in his blue slip is because the committee is still vetting Restrepo's background.
"I am not delaying Judge L. Felipe Restrepo's 3rd Circuit nomination," Toomey wrote in a defiant Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed.
"I have made it clear to the committee that I plan to turn in my 'blue slip' -- the formal manifestation of my support for Judge Restrepo -- the day that investigation is completed, provided no issues of concern are discovered," he wrote.
Toomey's reason for not submitting his blue slip doesn't really work, though. For starters, it wouldn't interfere at all with the committee's background review of Restrepo if the senator turned in his blue slip -- as Casey did.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Huffington Post as much last week, when asked when he plans to schedule a hearing for Restrepo.
"When I get the blue slips returned," he said.
Toomey himself told HuffPost last week that he fully supports Restrepo and has no new concerns with the nomination. He gave a confusing response when asked if he's withholding his blue slip.
"No, I'm not. Well, let me explain how that works to you. But I've got to run for this lunch," he said, walking away quickly. "But I support his confirmation."
Delays on Restrepo's hearing come at a time when Republicans are slow-walking Obama's judicial nominees. The Senate has confirmed only two district court judges this year. By contrast, Democrats had confirmed 18 district or circuit court judges by this point in President George W. Bush's seventh year in office.
Asked Wednesday for clarification on why Toomey wouldn't just turn in his blue slip to clear the path for Restrepo, a Toomey spokesman said the op-ed "speaks for itself" and suggested HuffPost contact the Senate committee.
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said that the committee is focused on Restrepo's background review and that it's "prudent" for a senator not to return a blue slip until the review is done. Asked why the review seems to be dragging on, particularly since the Senate had thoroughly vetted Restrepo in 2013 when he was confirmed as a district judge, she said the vetting "starts from scratch" for every new nomination.
"Just because Senator Casey returned his blue slip earlier than Senator Toomey doesn’t make one way better than the other," said Levine. "In fact, when you consider that the vetting process isn’t completed, and at times concerns are raised during this process, it’s generally prudent to allow the vetting to run its course before turning in the blue slip."
It's not clear when Restrepo will get a hearing. He's already waited 182 days, as of Wednesday, which is more than double the amount of time that other recent nominees to the same Pennsylvania court have waited. Judge Cheryl Krause, confirmed in 2014, waited 34 days for a hearing after being nominated. Judge Thomas Vanaskie, confirmed in 2009, waited 90 days for a hearing.
Casey spokesman John Rizzo said that his senator is ready to get Restrepo confirmed already.
"Judge Restrepo has had a distinguished legal career as an attorney in private practice, a federal magistrate and now as a District Court judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania," said Rizzo. "Senator Casey is hopeful and optimistic that Judge Restrepo will soon be confirmed on a bipartisan basis.”
UPDATE: Sen. Toomey turned in his blue slip to the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, a committee aide confirmed.