WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) keeps taking heat for skipping out on his Senate duties while he's out on the presidential campaign trail. But he's still effective at one thing in the upper chamber: blocking his own judicial nominee.
Rubio is withholding his so-called "blue slip" from the Judiciary Committee to prevent Florida district judge nominee Mary Flores from advancing. The committee won't let any nominee move forward until it has blue slips -- they're literally blue pieces of paper that reflect a senator's support -- from both of a nominee's home-state senators. Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, turned in his blue slip eight months ago. But nothing from Rubio.
The weird part is that Rubio supports Flores. He and Nelson recommended her to President Barack Obama, and the president formally nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in February. She's now been waiting for a hearing for 242 days, but can't move without Rubio's sign-off. She would fill a seat that's been empty for 532 days, and that court is so overloaded with work that it's considered a judicial emergency.
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said the senator "takes very seriously" his role in confirming judges to the federal bench.
"The Senate Judiciary Committee is still conducting a full review of the nominee’s background and record," Burgos said. "After that review is complete, Senator Rubio will make his own determination based on the committee’s review and his own further review."
It's a curious argument given that Rubio himself recommended Flores. It's also a self-defeating one: Turning in a blue slip has no effect on a committee's review of a nominee. A spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman, said Flores' nomination isn't moving because of Rubio's outstanding blue slip and because a committee review is underway.
Republicans have been slow-walking Obama's judicial picks all year, and prolonged "committee reviews" is one way they can keep doing it. The GOP calculation is that Obama will be gone after 2016, at which point a Republican could be in the White House. If they can hold out until then, they can give GOP-picked judges lifetime jobs on the federal bench.
But delayed confirmations mean court cases are getting backed up for years, and federal judges are burning out as vacancies go unfilled. Some courts don't have any active judges on them; they're being staffed by volunteer, semi-retired judges while they wait on the Senate.
Rubio has some experience in blocking his nominees. In September 2013, the Florida senator pulled his support for William Thomas, a gay black judge from Miami, after recommending him to the White House for a seat on the same court as Flores. It was a puzzling turn of events, and the president ultimately decided against resubmitting Thomas' nomination to the Senate in 2014.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Monday that Republicans are on track to block several of their own nominees this year. So far, the GOP-led Senate has confirmed nine judges. By contrast, in 2007, when Democrats led the Senate and President George W. Bush was in his seventh year in office, 34 judicial nominees had been confirmed by this point in the year.
"If Republican obstruction continues, and if home state Senators cannot persuade the Majority Leader to schedule a vote for their nominees soon, then it is unlikely that even highly qualified nominees with Republican support will be confirmed by the end of the year," Leahy said. "These are nominees that members of the Majority Leader’s own party want confirmed."