WASHINGTON — No longer impeded by Republican blocking tactics, Democrats are on track to win confirmation of up to 88 of President Barack Obama's top judicial nominations this year, a total that would be the highest for any president in two decades.
Last year, Democrats made it harder for Republicans to derail Obama's nominations by weakening the Senate's rule on filibusters. So far this year, the chamber has approved 76 federal court of appeals and district court judges, all of them lifetime appointments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is hoping to confirm a dozen more before adjournment later this week — votes he is pushing with the knowledge that the Republicans who control the Senate next year will be less accommodating.
Whatever this year's figure, it will easily surpass the 43 approved last year and the 49 confirmed in 2012. It will also increase Obama's imprint on the federal judiciary, though judges don't always champion the political ideology of the president who picked them.
"He's changed the face of the judiciary," said Russell Wheeler, who studies the judiciary for the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. "Whether or not that will have a long-term impact, I think, is another question."
If the Senate confirms 88 of Obama's judicial selections, that would be the highest number since a Democratic-led Senate approved 99 of President Bill Clinton's appeals and district court nominees in 1994, according to Wheeler.
Several lawmakers said Democrats got a chance to consider more nominees than expected after conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, forced a weekend vote on Obama's executive actions deferring the deportation of millions of immigrants. They said that gave Reid more time to hold votes on nominations.
"I think most people would say yes to that. People make mistakes," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, adding, "I admire anybody who's willing to stand up on the floor and make their case."
Cruz spokesman Phil Novack disagreed that Cruz's move gave Reid an opening, writing by email, "Everyone knows Harry Reid planned to jam forward as many nominees as he could."
The 88 judges would mean the Senate would have confirmed 303 federal appeals and district court judges through Obama's six years in office, according to Wheeler. That would be more than the 298 confirmed during Clinton's first six years and the 253 confirmed during that same period under President George W. Bush.
It would also leave just 50 federal appeals and district court vacancies out of 856 judgeships, according to data from the U.S. court system. That's the lowest number of vacancies since December 2008, the month before Obama took office. Vacancies during his presidency peaked at 108 in December 2010.
Of Obama's judges confirmed so far, 42 percent have been women, 19 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, the White House said. That exceeded the percentages of his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Clinton, the White House said.
Another measure of Obama's impact is on federal appeals courts, which have enormous influence on their regions of the country and can be conduits for cases to reach the Supreme Court. When he took office, 10 of the 13 appeals courts had more judges appointed by Republican than Democratic presidents. Now the balance has switched, with Democratic-appointed majorities on nine of the courts.
Most significantly, that includes the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia, considered the nation's second-most powerful court because its jurisdiction includes actions by the White House and federal agencies.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Erica Werner contributed to this report.