By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked President Barack Obama's nominee to a key federal appeals court, charging that he was trying to "pack the court" to win favorable rulings.
On a nearly party-line vote of 55-38, five short of the needed 60, Obama's Democrats failed to end a Republican procedural roadblock against Patricia Millett, a Harvard-trained lawyer who worked for both Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush.
Republicans hailed the vote as a victory in their bid to stop Obama from turning the court into a rubber stamp for his administration.
Democrats denounced it as a partisan attack on a president trying to fulfill his responsibility to fill court vacancies.
Obama picked Millett for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is considered the country's second most important court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of 13 circuit courts of appeals, it handles cases involving federal regulatory issues, the role of government and the separation of powers between Congress and the president.
Due to its clout, the court has traditionally been the target of fights between Senate Democrats and Republicans, who confirm all federal judicial nominees.
This year, Republicans, just like Democrats did when Bush was president, argued there was not enough work to justify filling any of the current three vacancies on the 11-member D.C. Circuit and that the president was trying to shape the court to win favorable rulings for his administration.
"He (Obama) is trying to pack the court," Assistant Senate Republican leader John Cornyn said. "I know my (Democratic) friends don't like that term, ‘court packing' ... but I don't know what else you would call this."
Steve Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University, said both sides were guilty of hypocrisy.
"When you are in the Senate - in the party that doesn't have the White House - three things happen" when nominations are made to the D.C. circuit, Saltzburg said.
"You push to delay votes on nominees, you accuse them of being partisan and you complain about the court's workload," saying it is not enough to merit filling vacancies, said Saltzburg.
"The workload argument disappears when your party takes the White House," Saltzburg said.
In the debate over Millett, Democrats and Republicans acknowledged the history of their battles over nominations to the D.C appeals court.
They also differed sharply over whether there is enough work to merit confirming another judge, with Democrats arguing yes and Republicans saying no.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell noted that just a few months ago, another Obama nominee to the D.C. circuit, Sri Srinivasan, won unanimous Senate confirmation.
He was the first nominee confirmed to the court since 2006. Of the court's eight current judges, four were nominated by Democratic presidents, and four by Republican presidents.
McConnell said, "The reason they want to put more judges on the D.C. circuit is not because it needs them, but because the president's best hope of advancing his agenda is through executive action, and that runs through the D.C. circuit."
After the vote, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid ripped into Republicans for blocking Millett despite having "no significant objections to her record or qualifications."
The American Bar Association gave Millett its highest rating of "well-qualified." Reid said he may bring her up again for a vote.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Peter Cooney)