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Updated: 6:53 p.m.

Senate Republicans are fuming over a move by Senate Democrats to force cloture votes on 17 noncontroversial District Court nominees, a maneuver the GOP contends threatens to take the Senate’s focus away from job creation and helping bring down gas prices.

“This is a needless exercise and a waste of the Senate’s time because I assume these 17 people already have a job,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “What we’re worried about is all the people who don’t currently have a job who might in some way benefit from a jobs package that we are by and large in agreement on.”

The standoff potentially could keep the Senate voting on judges through the rest of the month, if cloture is invoked on the nominees one by one. But Senate Democrats hope that an agreement can be reached soon that can ultimately clear the nominees.

Republicans instead want Senate Democrats to take up bipartisan capital formation legislation designed to help small businesses that was recently approved by the Republican-led House and to drop the judge issue, which they argue will get confirmed in the near future.

“We have a way of dealing with the judicial and other appointments in the Senate,” McConnell said. “This effort to have 17 cloture votes in a row is a manufactured crisis. This president has gotten more judges in three years than President Bush got in the last four. We approved 62 last year. We’ve approved seven so far this year.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham said he plans to vote “present.”

“I think I have a pretty good record on being reasonable on judges; this is an unreasonable approach by the Majority Leader,” the South Carolina Republican said. “I’m voting ‘present.’

“I will wind up voting for most of the judges, if not all of them at some point, but I am not going to [allow] the Minority Leader [to be] run over by the Majority Leader.

“I am not against the judges, I am against the process, which will hurt the Senate’s ability to operate in a collegial manner in the future,” Graham added.

Some argue that voting “present” is not a moderate middle ground because cloture requires 60 affirmative votes.

“Voting ‘present’ on a cloture motion is the same as voting ‘no,’” said Glenn Sugameli, a staff attorney with Defenders Of Wildlife in Washington. “You need 60 ‘yes’ votes to break a filibuster, and it doesn’t matter how many Senators vote ‘present’ or ‘no.’”

Democrats said that the judicial vacancy crisis is real, resulting in crowded dockets and unnecessary delays. They argue that the problem is aggravated by GOP slow-walking of judicial nominees, which amounts to a virtual filibuster.

According to White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler, who spoke with reporters on a conference call, on average Obama’s judicial nominees have waited four to five times as long as President George W. Bush’s nominees to be confirmed after receiving Judiciary Committee approval.

“Republicans have used every delay tactic available to them to slow the confirmation process down to nearly a halt and to block nominees who are unquestionably qualified,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the issue should not have to take much of the Senate’s time. “They could approve these judges in five minutes,” the Nevada Democrat said.

Reid added that the Senate continues to work on job creation and underscored that the transportation bill the Senate was poised to pass would create more jobs than the House small-business measure.

The House measure “is a nice bill; I like it,” Reid said. “But it’s not a major job creation bill, as Sen. McConnell said this morning. It’ll help people, we hope, take some of that money they have in the banks and invest it. That’s what we want done. And we’ve said we’re going to move to that.”

Democrats have offered, on the Senate floor today, to take up the House jobs bill — after taking a pounding from Republicans to do so, according to a senior Democratic aide. The offer also includes an agreement to hold a vote on an amendment to the bill that would boost the lending limit for the Export-Import Bank and to move to the judicial nominee issue afterward.

But Republicans have not accepted the offer because they argue that voting on 17 judges is not the best use of time.

“It’s a question of priorities,” a senior GOP aide said, adding that Americans want Congress to focus on job creation.

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