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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Monday denied President Barack Obama his third nominee in as many weeks to the nation’s most powerful and prestigious appeals court and insisted they would not back down, inflaming a bitter debate over a president’s right to shape the judiciary.

By a vote of 53-38, the Senate failed to break a filibuster of a federal judge, Robert L. Wilkins, who was nominated to fill one of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, falling short of the 60 votes needed.

Unlike previous fights over judicial nominees, this one is not driven by ideology or divisive social issues like abortion. Republicans have raised few objections to any of the candidates’ qualifications or political leanings.

Rather, Republicans are trying to prevent Obama from filling any slots on the court, fearing that he will alter its conservative tilt.

Democrats accused Republicans of exercising a nakedly political double standard for confirming presidential nominees.

“Appointing judges to fill vacant judicial seats is not court-packing,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. “It’s a president’s right as well as his duty.”

Republicans have argued that the court does not have the caseload to merit filling the vacancies, and they have proposed legislation to shrink it by three seats. But that legislation has no chance of becoming law in a Democratic-controlled Senate, so instead Republicans have vowed to block any nominees for that court.

For a day at least, business on Capitol Hill shifted away from the problematic efforts to carry out the president’s health care law, prompting Republicans to accuse Democrats of trying to change the subject.

“Unfortunately, the Senate will not be voting on legislation to allow Americans to keep their health insurance if they like it,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader. “Rather, we will be voting on another nominee to a court that doesn’t have enough work to do. The Senate ought to be spending its time dealing with a real crisis, not a manufactured one.”

Republicans are making a bold gamble: Hold firm and allow no more judges to get through while hoping that Democrats do not alter filibuster rules so the minority can no longer block judges. At times, they have openly dared Democrats to change the rules, saying that any move to stop filibusters will come back to haunt them if the Senate and the White House ever flip back to Republicans.

It is not a small matter for Democrats, who may find themselves someday wishing to block a Republican president’s Supreme Court nominee. Senate aides said Monday that members of the Democratic leadership had started to gauge support for a rules change inside their caucus. Any changes would require 51 of the 55 members.

Reid can bring the nominees back up again at any time, either individually or all at once.

Wilkins became the fourth of Obama’s choices for the powerful court blocked by Republicans this year.