WASHINGTON (AP) -- Opening a summer showdown with Congress, a combative President Barack Obama nominated three judges to a powerful appellate court Tuesday and challenged Republicans to stop the "political obstruction" holding up his nominees.
"What I'm doing today is my job," Obama said in the face of Republican attempts to eliminate the very judicial vacancies he's trying to fill. "I need the Senate to do its job."
Obama's nominations were another ingredient in a White House effort to regain the political momentum after weeks of controversies, disputes over legislation and a budget stalemate that shows no sign of ending.
Obama used a Rose Garden ceremony to introduce his candidates to fill the three openings on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, grooming grounds for Supreme Court justices. The nominees include two attorneys experienced in arguing appellate cases, Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard, and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, who is a lower court judge in the same building across from the Capitol where the D.C. circuit court meets.
"There's no reason, aside from politics, for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up-or-down vote," Obama argued.
The court is a long-running battleground between the White House and Senate that predate this president. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah pointed out that in 2006, Democratic senators objected to approving President George W. Bush's pick amid questions about whether the seat needed to be filled.
"Today's nominations are nothing more than a political ploy to advance a partisan agenda," said Lee, a member of the Judiciary Committee tasked with holding judicial confirmation hearings.
Obama has other nomination battles on his hands this summer -- his selection of Tom Perez as labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency face still GOP resistance. And Republicans have been hammering Obama over last year's attack in Libya that killed four Americans, political targeting at the IRS and tracking of journalists who reported leaks. And there's been no movement in the partisan stalemate to replace $85 billion in government-wide spending cuts.
There's no shortage of other disputes, either. Republicans have opposed Obama's proposals for gun control, a minimum wage increase, universal pre-kindergarten and more federal money for highways and bridge repair. Meanwhile, Obama has threated to veto GOP legislation on spending, student loan rates, cybersecurity and overtime compensation.
The D.C. circuit has 11 judgeships authorized by Congress, but Republican lawmakers are proposing the three vacancies be eliminated. A GOP bill would shift two of the seats to circuits elsewhere in the country with higher workloads and eliminate the third.
That legislation is a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but signals that Republicans are going to fight Obama's nominees. "It's hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda," Grassley said in a statement.
Obama ridiculed the argument as a blatant political move, at times laughing out loud and shaking his head. He said he was simply doing his constitutional duty to nominate judges and noted that some of the same Republicans who have sponsored the legislation voted in 2007 to keep 11 judges on the D.C. circuit.
"When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. circuit court made complete sense," the president said. "Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't. Eight is suddenly enough."
Obama's three nominees -- two white women and a black man -- contribute to a White House commitment to bring diversity to the federal bench historically dominated by white men. But the nominees don't bring much in the way of academic diversity; all three are graduates of Obama's alma mater, Harvard Law School.
Pillard is an experienced Supreme Court litigator who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund before joining the solicitor general's office in 1994. She left to join the faculty at Georgetown in 1997, but returned for two years at the Justice Department at the end of the Clinton administration. She still appears before the Supreme Court from her position at Georgetown.
Millett worked with Pillard in the solicitor general's office beginning in 1996, but stayed through most of the Bush administration before leaving in 2007 to join private practice. Millett has argued cases in nearly every federal appeals court and appeared 32 times before the Supreme Court, the second-highest number of high court appearances of any female attorney. She's currently a partner at the Washington firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where she heads the firm's Supreme Court practice.
Wilkins has been a federal judge since 2010, when the Senate approved Obama's nomination of him to the U.S. District Court in Washington. He was a public defender in Washington before helping to establish the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and then going to work for nine years in private practice.
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