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.
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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid minced no words yesterday discussing the Senate GOP’s seeming indifference to Latino voters:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Monday that GOP prejudice against Latinos is coloring everything from the immigration stance its presidential contenders are taking on the campaign trail to Senate Republicans filibustering an ambassadorship.
“Let’s talk about some of the things happening to Hispanics in the Senate,” Reid said during a call with reporters, citing past GOP filibusters of immigration-reform bills and the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador.
“What is going on here answers whether there is some prejudice here,” Reid added, referencing a prior question on whether racism played a role in what Reid and other Democrats depict as extreme anti-immigrant positions taken by GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential hopefuls.
Reid said that Republican candidates are “catering to the tea party” and competing for favor from extremists in their party with their immigration stances.
It’s not just immigration policy and the Aponte nomination. Republicans in the Senate have also been filibustering Hispanic judicial nominees at an alarming rate. This practice gained national attention when Democrats were forced to break a filibuster of the nomination of Judge Adalberto Jordan to sit on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Jordan was to become the first Cuban-American to sit on the circuit that covers Florida, and had the support of Cuban-American GOP senator Marco Rubio, yet was filibustered for four months. The pointlessness of the extended filibuster was made even clearer when the Senate ultimately confirmed Jordan in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote. Writing about the Jordan filibuster, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank asked, “Does the GOP care about Latino voters?”
Senate Republicans are now stalling votes on two Hispanic nominees to the federal courts. They were both approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee, and no Republican has publicly expressed any reason to question their fitness for the bench.
President Obama has made a concerted effort to bring diversity to the federal bench – 36 percent of his nominees have been people of color and 45 percent have been women. The president, in prioritizing bringing diversity to the federal courts, has made a strong statement. The statement that the Senate GOP is making in obstructing those nominees is equally strong.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that one of the key focuses of the Senate’s next five weeks of work will be “clearing the backlog of judicial nominees that threatens the effectiveness of our justice system.”
Reid’s announcement is important for several reasons. Because of unyielding Republican obstructionism, Senate Democrats have been unable to schedule confirmation votes on all but a few federal judicial nominees in the past several months. This situation had created a backlog of nominees waiting for Senate votes and a vacancy crisis in the federal courts, where about one in ten seats is vacant.
The reason why it’s been so hard for Democrats to schedule votes on President Obama’s judicial nominees is that the Senate GOP has in the past few years taken full advantage of all the tools of obstruction that it has available. The Senate has to have unanimous consent to schedule an up-or-down vote – something that in the past has been routinely granted to judicial nominees with strong bipartisan support. But since President Obama took office, Senate Republicans have been refusing to grant votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little to no Republican opposition -- effectively filibustering dozens upon dozens of nominees. Only after months of delay are the votes finally allowed. Last week, Senate Democrats made it clear that they’d had enough and filed cloture to end the filibusters of two of the nominees – each of whom was subsequently confirmed in overwhelming numbers.
That’s right: Senate Republicans haven’t just been obstructing nominees who they find fault with – they’ve been obstructing everybody. President Obama’s nominees have been forced to wait an average of 100 days after committee approval just to get a yes-or-no vote from the Senate. The average wait for George W. Bush’s nominees at this point in his presidency was 24 days.
This afternoon, senators voted on the nomination of Margo K. Brodie, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern New York. Although she was unopposed in the Judiciary Committee, Brodie has waited for more than four months for her nomination to be voted on. She was approved on a vote of 86 to 2.
There are now nineteen judicial nominees still waiting for a Senate vote, most of whom were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with absolutely no opposition. Ten of them have been waiting three months or more from a vote, and ten have been nominated to fill officially-designated judicial emergencies. Fourteen of the twenty are women or people of color and one is an openly gay man.
Sen. Reid is doing the right thing in calling out Republicans on their obstructionism and ensuring that our courts continue to be fair and functioning.