Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in one of the most closely-watched cases in its history: the challenge to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But in the weeks leading up to those arguments, another fight will be taking place in the U.S. Senate on an issue that in many ways parallels the health care debate, and offers an even clearer view of what have become the policy priorities of the Republican Party.
Since Obama became president, Republicans in Congress have made a clear and conscious choice to kill any attempts to cooperate with him to create solutions for the American people. They have chosen instead to devote themselves to be the party of opposing President Obama - on every issue, big and small. In doing so, they have thrown out not only the trust of the people who elected them, but many of their own formerly held principles.
Even ideas that originally came from Republicans, once adopted by the president become grounds for all-out partisan attacks. One such Republican idea was the individual mandate, which is now at the center of the legal and political challenges to the Affordable Care Act.
Ironically, the judicial branch - to which Republicans are turning with hopes that the policy they came up with is declared unconstitutional - is also at the heart of another stunning turnaround. Republicans used to talk about the importance of bipartisan cooperation in ensuring a fair and functioning judiciary. But that changed abruptly in January 2009, when the political party of the president changed.
When it comes to health care reform, Republicans have chosen to ignore their previous positions in an effort to stick it to the president.
When it comes to the functioning of the federal courts, they have so far chosen to do the same.
This week, Republicans in the Senate, after three years of obstructing nominees to the U.S. courts -- contributing to a historic vacancy crisis that affects over 160 million Americans -- will have to make the same choice. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced he will file petitions to end the filibusters of 17 nominees to district courts around the country, most long-stalled and unopposed. These, plus the two Obama nominees who have already been filibustered, represent nearly ten times the number of district court nominees who were filibustered under the last two presidents combined. The cumbersome process to end these filibusters will, if Republicans don't relent, tie up the Senate through early April.
During George W. Bush's presidency, Senate Republicans were near-universal in their condemnation of the filibusters of some of Bush's most extreme judicial nominees. Many went so far as to claim that filibustering judicial nominees was unconstitutional.
Once President Obama moved into the White House, it was remarkable how fast they changed their tune. They went overnight from decrying judicial filibusters, to using them wantonly -- not just to stall nominees to whom they found objections, but to stall all nominees , even those whom they favor. At this point in Bush's presidency, the average district court nominee waited 22 days between approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been more than four times longer - over three months.
This is gridlock for gridlock's sake: once Republicans allow them to come to a vote, the vast majority of the president's nominees have been confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support, demonstrating that the opposition to these nominees was never about their qualifications.
This is more than an inside the beltway partisan game -- it has helped to create a historic vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Approximately one in ten federal courtrooms today sits empty because of Senate inaction. These vacancies create unmanageable workloads for sitting judges, which in turn cause unacceptable delays for Americans seeking their day in court. The Republican Party has been so intent on obstructing President Obama's agenda that they've been willing to sacrifice the smooth functioning of America's courts
. The health care debate highlights the importance of appointing judges who place their duty to the Constitution over a partisan agenda. But it also crystallizes the agenda of opposition that has caused the Republican Party to go off the deep end. When a party's only principle is to be opposed to the other party's agenda, it's the American people who end up paying the price.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture petitions to end GOP filibusters of 17 district court nominees, an extraordinary move brought on by unprecedented Republican obstruction. The Senate GOP started immediately to try to spin the story to try to cover for the gridlock they had created. Here are the five main Republican talking points on the judicial obstruction showdown and the facts that rebut them:
GOP Talking Point #1: Senate Democrats have invented this conflict to make Republicans look bad. This is a little skirmish about timing that’s been blown out of proportion.
Sen. McConnell: “Rather than try to manufacture gridlock and create the illusion of conflict where none exists, why don’t we demonstrate we can kind of get something done together?”
Sen. Alexander: "This is a little disagreement that we have here between the Majority leader and the Republican leader on the scheduling of votes on district judges. It's not a high constitutional matter. It's not even a high principle. It's not even a big disagreement.”
GOP Talking Point #2: The GOP’s obstruction is a direct response to President Obama’s recess appointments.
Sen. Lee: "After the president made four unconstitutional appointments, we could no longer sustain the same level of cooperation.”
GOP Talking Point #3: Some of the filibustered nominees haven’t been on the calendar all that long, what’s the hurry?
Sen. Alexander: “We have 17 district court judgeships that have been recommended by the Judiciary committee. They could be brought up by the majority leader. He has the right to do that but of those 17, six of them - six of them - have been here for less than 30 days. They just got here.”
GOP Talking Point #4: Senate Republicans are floating plans to vote “present” on the 17 cloture petitions, thus continuing to stall the nominees while not being tagged with a “no” vote.
Sen. Cornyn: “Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told POLITICO he thinks Republicans will vote ‘no’ or ‘present’ on the cloture votes on judges and won't allow Democrats to ‘jam’ them.”
GOP Talking Point #5: The Senate has more important issues to focus on.
Sen. McConnell: “It could be that is precisely what my friend the Majority leader has in mind, to try to make the Senate look like it's embroiled in controversy where no controversy exists. So my suggestion is, why don't we do first things first.”
Press Contact: Miranda Blue, (202) 497-4999, email@example.com
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, People For the American Way
Re: Debunking the GOP’s Spin on Judicial Obstruction
Date: March 13, 2012
Senate Democrats are taking action this week to call Republicans on their unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees, which over the past three years has left far too many of our nation's courtrooms empty. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture petitions in an attempt to end the GOP filibusters of all 17 district court nominees currently waiting for Senate votes, most of whom have been stalled for over three months for absolutely no reason. And already, Senate Republicans have concocted a false spin in an attempt to cover for the mess they have helped to create in the federal courts.
Reid’s action is unprecedented: only two district court nominees were filibustered in the sixteen years of the Bush and Clinton presidencies. As of yesterday, nineteen of President Obama’s district court nominees have been filibustered.
If Republicans don’t back down and allow up-or-down votes on these nominees, the cumbersome cloture process will tie up the senate until early April – and it will become very clear to the American people that Republicans’ top priority is gridlock, not policy.
In response, Senate Republicans have united behind a message that seeks to blame President Obama for the gridlock they created. Their claim is that their unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees is a direct response to President Obama’s recess appointments of a director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and members of the National Labor Relations Board -- appointments that they neglect to mention were themselves necessary because of Republican obstruction.
This narrative is simply not true. Even a cursory look at the last three years shows that today’s Republican obstruction is not related to their fury at the president’s recess appointments. In fact, these unprecedented levels of obstruction have been going on since President Obama took office. By the end of 2011, before the recess appointments, President Obama's confirmed district court nominees had been stalled more than four times longer on average than President Bush's. That is the case today, as well.
The unjustified delays in 2009-2011 were hardly caused by recess appointments made in 2012.
Make no mistake: the Senate GOP’s obstruction of judicial nominees is part of a deeply cynical effort to create gridlock in Washington and to keep as many courtrooms empty for as long as possible in the hopes of having a Republican president fill them in 2013.
Our federal courts are now facing a historic vacancy crisis, and Americans are facing unjustified delays as they seek their day in court. Senate Republicans should ditch the false excuses for their obstruction, and start doing the job they were elected to do.
Press Contact: Miranda Blue, (202) 467-4999, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he will file petitions to end Republican filibusters of 17 federal district court nominees. The extraordinary move highlights Senate Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees. During the entire 16 years that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in office, there were only two filibusters of district court nominations. If Senate Republicans don’t relent on these 17 nominees, the cloture process could tie up the Senate through early April, with each nominee taking 30 hours of floor time under Senate rules.
“It is absolutely stunning that Republicans are willing to tie up Senate business for more than 510 hours just to make things more difficult for President Obama,” said Marge Baker of People For the American Way. “For the past three years, Senate Republicans have been slow-walking judicial nominees at every step of the process, ignoring the duties they were elected to office to perform and contributing to a historic vacancy crisis in our federal courts. Ultimately, it’s the American people, who rely on fair and functioning federal courts, who pay the price for these political games.”
At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the average district court nominee waited 22 days between approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been more than four times as long – over three months.
Currently, about one in ten seats on the federal courts is vacant, affecting access to justice for over 160 million Americans.
The War on Women doesn't stop with reproductive rights. In a new post at Ms. Blog, People For's Marge Baker explains how GOP obstruction of judicial nominees is keeping women -- as well as people of color and gays and lesbians -- from reaching positions of power in the federal courts:
President Obama has made no secret of his goal to make the American courts look like America. Along with the effort to bring more women to the bench, roughly 36 percent of his nominees have been people of color, and he has nominated more openly lesbian and gay individuals to the federal courts than all his predecessors combined.
But the president’s effort to bring a diversity of voices to the federal courts is now facing a major roadblock. Senate Republicans have been obstructing President Obama’s judicial nominees to an unprecedented extent–usually not because of objections to the nominees themselves, but just for the sake of creating gridlock. Indeed, most of President Obama’s nominees have been approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or near-unanimous bipartisan support. Nevertheless, after committee approval, Republicans in the Senate have forced the president’s nominees to wait four times longer to get a yes-or-no vote than President Bush’s nominees at the same point in his term.
As a result, about one out of ten courtrooms in the country are vacant and Americans are facing inexcusable delays as they seek their day in court. One of President Obama’s least-noticed but most long-lasting achievements–putting a qualified, diverse group of judges on our federal courts–has been put at risk.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Politico that he plans to push forward on filling the federal courts, despite unprecedented Republican obstructionism. Here is what Americans who value the courts are up against:
Despite a vacancy crisis in the federal courts that has led to delayed justice for Americans across the country, Senate Republicans have been using every delay tactic in the books to prevent qualified nominees from getting through the system.
The dotted line represents the average time President Bush’s confirmed judicial nominees at this point in his presidency had to wait for a floor vote after committee approval. The blue lines are President Obama’s nominees – almost all with overwhelming bipartisan support , yet mostly forced to wait for months on end for no reason.
If Senate Republicans keep filibustering these nominees, Sen. Reid will be forced to start a cumbersome and time-consuming cloture process for each and every one of them. Such filibuster abuse is a waste fo the Senate’s time, and it’s bad for America’s courts.