Though President Barack Obama’s time in office is drawing to a close, the Senate pipeline for judicial nominees remains open.
On Monday, the Senate will consider Rebecca Ebinger for a lifetime judicial appointment as a district judge in Iowa. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has advocated for Ebinger and negotiated a deal for her confirmation.
In December, the Iowa senator brokered the deal between Republican and Democrat leaders to advance five of Obama’s nominees to the Senate floor for a vote before President’s Day next Monday. Two of them are from Grassley’s home state.
So far in 2016, three of those nominees have won Senate confirmation, including Wilhelmina Wright, a controversial judge who accused President Ronald Reagan of bigotry and racism. The two remaining nominees are Ebinger and Leonard Strand, two Iowans who moved to the front of the line, past a backlog of other nominees.
The politically astute Grassley is running for re-election in Iowa this year. But his deal comes as the debate over Obama’s final judicial nominees heats up nationally.
Some organizations, like Heritage Action, have advocated freezing all of the president’s judicial nominees in protest of what conservatives consider executive overreach.
“Heritage Action will continue to oppose all judicial nominees,” the group said in a statement. “Senators should not stand by idly for the next 12 months. They must act to reassert their constitutional prerogatives.”
Others, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, argue that the process is too political already and have complained about delays in advancing nominees.
“Blocking judicial nominations may delight right-wing ideologues—like Heritage Action,” the group said, “but it would seriously damage the judicial system and be an irresponsible abdication of the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to advise and consent on nominees.”
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, has led the opposition to freezing the nomination process.
In a Jan. 19 floor speech, Leahy said efforts to “shut down the judicial confirmation process” were meant “to satisfy moneyed Washington interest groups.” He added, “It would only work to harm our justice system and the American people.”
Grassley rejects the notion that Republicans have purposely gummed up the nomination process.
Before the Jan. 11 confirmation of Luis Restrepo to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Grassley noted that there were “more nominees” confirmed under Obama than when George W. Bush was president.
When Bush was in the White House, the Senate confirmed 297 court nominees between 2000 and 2008. In Bush’s final year in office, when Democrats held the majority, the Senate confirmed four circuit court nominees before June and 24 district court nominees before September.
So far during the seven-year tenure of the Obama administration, the Senate has confirmed 322 nominees. Fourteen of those came during the 114th Congress, while Republicans controlled the Senate and Grassley served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
In his Jan. 11 speech on the Senate floor, Grassley promised that “the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue to hold hearings this year on judicial nominees, and we’ll continue to do our due diligence in evaluating those nominees.”
Complicating matters for Obama is the so-called Thurmond-Leahy rule—an unofficial agreement among senators that generally halts confirmations during the last six months of an outgoing president’s term.
A spokesman from the Senate Judiciary Committee left open the possibility of getting “future nominations approved.” He noted that Grassley does not control the Senate calendar and is “following the committee precedent set by [former] Chairman Leahy.”