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Senate reaches deal on judicial nominations

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Wednesday afternoon that he had worked out a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell to allow 14 mostly non-controversial judicial nominees to come up for a confirmation vote.

"The Senate will hold up-or-down votes on seven district court judges before the end of this work period," Reid said. "We'll vote on another five district court and two circuit court nominations by Monday, May 7th." The current work period ends at the end of this month, after which the Senate goes on a two-week recess.

"This is a victory for our nation's justice system," Reid added. "While I still believe the Senate should confirm all these nominations this afternoon to address the judicial vacancy crisis we face had this country, the step forward is one we should all feel good about."

Before the deal was worked out, Reid had threatened to force votes on 17 federal trial court nominees in an effort to get them approved and onto the bench. The University of Richmond's Carl Tobias, an expert on the courts, told NPR on Tuesday that it has taken much longer for nominees to get confirmed than it has under past presidents, something attributable to GOP opposition. As things now stand, more than one in ten federal district court seats are vacant, which slows down the judicial process.

As CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen points out, eight of the 17 nominees in question had been unanimously voted out of the Judiciary Committee, and six more had only been opposed by one Republican - Utah's Mike Lee, who responded to Mr. Obama's January recess appointments, which infuriated Republicans, by opposing every nominee put forth by the president. At least seven would serve in districts where a "judicial emergency" has been declared because the judges in place cannot keep pace with the district's cases. 

The White House backed Reid's effort, saying "the executive branch and the Congress have responsibility to ensure that the third branch of government, the judiciary, can function." But Republicans dismissed it as a "political stunt," as Lee put it. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama complained that Senate Democrats are focused on an imaginary problem while "obstructing legislation that's coming out of the House that would fix energy, tax reform, small business growth proposals."

As part of the deal between Reid and McConnell, the Senate will take up that legislation - the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act - tomorrow. The debate on that bill will likely go into next week.

With reporting by CBS News' Jill Jackson.