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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Undeterred by the odds against him, President Barack Obama on Monday nominated two prominent lawyers to a Washington court that handles disputes over federal policy and is regarded as a launching pad for U.S. Supreme Court justices.
With tensions running high between the Democratic administration and Senate Republicans and Obama nearing the end of his current term, the chances that either will be confirmed in 2012 are slim, amid the turmoil of November's elections.
Obama has had problems filling openings at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where three vacancies exist. Even with Monday's action, he is likely to become the first president in half a century to finish a full term without putting anyone on this powerful bench.
One of his nominees, Caitlin Halligan, general counsel in the Manhattan District Attorney's office, was blocked by Senate Republicans in a December vote. The other, Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan, the principal deputy U.S. solicitor general, has drawn praise from former solicitors general, including Paul Clement, and would likely not face such opposition.
However, the timing of the nomination could make confirmation in 2012 difficult. Partisan differences between the Obama administration and Senate Republicans on judges still run deep, and the Senate process of screening a nominee, even under the best circumstances, can take many months.
In an election year, the Senate typically winds down business on judicial candidates by late summer. If Srinivasan were able to get a hearing this year, he could be positioned for full Senate action in 2013.
If he were confirmed, Srinivasan, who was born in Chandigarh, India, and grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, would be the first person of Asian descent to serve on the D.C. Circuit, according to the North American South Asian Bar Association.
In a written statement, Obama called the nominees "dedicated public servants who will bring their tremendous experience, intellect, and integrity" to the D.C. Circuit.
Often dubbed the "second highest court," the D.C. Circuit resolves challenges to U.S. policies, including those involving the environment, campaign finance and job safety.
Four of the nine current U.S. Supreme Court justices previously served there: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Until Monday, Halligan's was the only name Obama had sent to the Senate for an opening on the 11-member court. While facing Republican hurdles, Obama has also encountered differences in the past three years among his own ranks over his choices.
Outside liberal advocates who track judicial nominations, such as Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, did not immediately support Srinivasan's nomination on Monday.
Aron said his earlier legal work, including when he was a partner at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, "left open some questions about his commitment to workers' rights and to the rights of everyday Americans facing corporate and banking interests."
When the Senate took up Halligan's name in December, Republicans blocked a straight up-or-down vote on her nomination. Democrats fell six votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a procedural move against Halligan, who is a former chief appellate lawyer for New York state.
Republicans at the time, including Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained that Halligan had worked on lawsuits that sought to hold gun manufacturers liable for crimes committed with the weapons under "public nuisance" law. Grassley indicated Monday he still opposed Halligan.
In their announcement on Monday, White House officials noted that leading Republican lawyers have praised Srinivasan, who was a law clerk to now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the 1997-98 term.
Former solicitor general Clement, for whom Srinivasan worked in the solicitor general's office in the mid-2000s, said in a brief interview on Monday: "He is a tremendous lawyer and he will be a tremendous judge, if he can get confirmed, given the timing of this nomination."
Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom