WASHINGTON — The Senate battle over President Obama’s nominations to a key federal court has already reached Arkansas’ 2014 Senate race.
Senate Republicans have blocked all three of Obama’s nominees that Obama recommended in June to fill vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted to support all three, though he sided with Republicans last week when the Senate’s Democratic majority voted to do away with the long-standing 60-vote requirement to approve presidential executive branch and non-Supreme Court nominees.
Pryor’s likely Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, has introduced legislation in the House to do away with the three slots, reducing the D.C. Circuit to the eight judges now on the bench.
Cotton said Pryor’s vote on a procedural matter in the Senate was inconsequential.
"Inside baseball rules of what’s happening in the Senate are less important than the judges who he’s confirmed … who are affirming Barack Obama’s regulations and laws that are causing so much harm for the people of Arkansas," the congressman said last week.
Cotton’s proposal essentially echoes the position Senate Republicans have staked out on the nominees — that the federal court does not have the caseload to require filling the vacancies. But at the heart of GOP opposition is concern that Obama could gain additional influence, through the appointment process, on a circuit court that handles most legal challenges to administrative actions — an effort Cotton contends Pryor has abetted with his votes to affirm Obama’s court nominees.
"What really matters is the vote on all the liberal judges that Obama has been appointing for the last five years," Cotton said. "Every chance Sen. Pryor’s had to affirm those judges, he has, as he will, I suspect, for a court that didn’t need any more of them."
"When President Bush was in office, they were making the exact opposite argument, period," Pryor spokesman Michael Teague said.
Teague said the senator, a former state attorney general, takes his responsibility to advise and consent for judicial nominations seriously. He also noted that Pryor voted for close to 90 percent of the judges President George W. Bush appointed to the bench, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
"I need to know, of those candidates who are now judges, which one Tom Cotton would have advised Sen. Pryor to vote against. The point being, Mark Pryor has been very fair when it comes to judicial nominees and the president of the United States," Teague said.
In Arkansas, conservative activists have launched an ad campaign blasting Pryor on the issue. In a 30-second television spot that has run in the Little Rock area for weeks, D.C.-based Judicial Crisis Network claims Pryor is "helping Obama pack a key court with new liberal judges."
The Republican claim of "court packing" has been largely dismissed by independent fact-checking organization PolitiFact.org, which called it "false." While Obama may be seeking to put his imprint on the court, they said, he is doing so within his constitutional duty to fill court vacancies.
The Judicial Crisis Network and the liberal Alliance for Justice have traded arguments over the necessity of filling the vacancies given the circuit’s caseload.
David Ray, a spokesman for Cotton’s Senate campaign, says the independent advertisement highlights Pryor’s priorities.
"One thing is clear: Senator Pryor always puts President Obama first," Ray said. "We need a senator who will put the needs of Arkansas first."
Jeff Weaver, Pryor’s campaign manager, claimed the advertisement is a false attack.
"Another day, another false attack from Tom Cotton’s Washington special interest pals trying to smear Mark Pryor," Weaver said.
The Pryor campaign also issued a fact check noting that in 2005 Pryor took a lead role in ending a partisan impasse over some of President Bush’s judicial nominees facing a threatened filibuster by fellow Democrats.
The fact that Pryor has not opposed any of Obama’s judicial nominees is typical of most Senate Democrats. Only two have voted against an Obama selection — former Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska opposed three and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon opposed another.
Senate Republicans blocked the nominations on procedural hurdles that required a 60-vote majority to overcome until Democrats passed the so-called "nuclear option" last week. Now such nominations can be approved with a simple majority.
Senate Democrats had complained that qualified judicial nominees, particularly of the caliber of the three offered for the D.C. Circuit, should not face filibusters.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., has voted against the three nominees to the D.C. Circuit.
Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon in Little Rock contributed to this report.