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Blocked for 4 years, Bush nominee confirmed at last

In a win for President Bush, Priscilla Owen is the first of several disputed judicial choices to gain Senate approval.

By wire services
Published May 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Senate likes to call itself the world's greatest deliberative body. Anyone needing a reference on that should check with Priscilla Owen.

Nominated to the federal appeals court in May 2001 - so long ago that The Mummy Returns was the nation's top-grossing movie - Owen finally got her vote Wednesday.

She won, too, a personal triumph over Democratic opposition that was also a victory for President Bush.

The 55-43 vote was largely along party lines, and made the 50-year-old jurist the first of Bush's long-blocked nominees to win approval under a newly minted agreement by senators meant to end years of partisan gridlock.

"We cannot stop with this single step," Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a written statement soon after the vote. The Tennessee Republican resurrected a threat to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster Bush's picks for the nation's highest courts if they violate the 2-day-old accord.

"We must give fair up-or-down votes to other previously blocked nominees. It is the only way to close this miserable and unprecedented chapter in Senate history," Frist said.

Democratic leader Harry Reid said he was "ready to put all this behind us and move on."

"I would hope the president would move on," he said at a news conference in which Democratic leaders urged renewed attention to the economy, health care, defense and other issues.

At the White House, President Bush said he applauded the decision on Owen, but called on the Senate to act on all his nominees.

"I urge the Senate to build on this progress and provide my judicial nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve," he said in a statement.

Frist told reporters he intended to seek votes early next month for Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, two other nominees long blocked by Democrats but now protected by Monday night's bipartisan agreement.

In addition, the Senate's top Republican said he would press for votes on the nominations of William Myers and Henry Saad - two of the president's selections who were not guaranteed final votes in the centrists' deal.

Republican officials also said they expected Frist to push for votes on Brett Kavanaugh and William Haynes.

Both are appeals court nominees opposed by Democrats and have yet to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Beyond that, there is a widespread expectation that one or more Supreme Court vacancies will occur in the coming months, any one of which has the potential to reignite partisan warfare over the future of the judiciary.

Reid, the Democratic leader from Nevada, sounded less than eager to continue debating judicial nominees opposed by many senators in his party as well as independent groups aligned with his party.

The final debate over Owen's nomination was without suspense after Monday's 81-18 vote to advance her nomination to the brink of confirmation.

Since her original nomination in 2001, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Democrats have said Owen has displayed a tendency for judicial activism, allowing her own political beliefs to color her rulings. In particular, they pointed to an abortion-related case in which she sided with a minority of the court that wanted to make it harder for teens to have an abortion without parental permission.

Republicans said such claims were politically motivated, and noted she easily won election to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994 and re-election in 2000.

Owen was one of 10 first-term appeals court appointments made by Bush who were denied votes by Democratic filibusters.

Renominated by Bush after his re-election, Owen logged nine hours of hearings before the Judiciary Committee, and filed 900 pages of written answers to questions posed by individual members of the panel.

Republicans said that over the years the Senate spent 22 days debating her nomination - a total that Frist said exceeded the time devoted to all of the nine sitting members of the Supreme Court.

On the final vote Owen drew support from 53 of the Senate's Republicans, as well as Democratic Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Opposed were 41 Democrats, Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote; Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, originally voted "yes" but later changed his vote to "present."

Beyond Owen's nomination, Frist's statements during the day appeared to mark an effort to stake his ground for confirmation battles ahead.

The majority leader has repeatedly said he was not involved in Monday night's agreement, which fell short of his own goal of guaranteeing yes-or-no votes for all of Bush's nominees. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans signed the pact, pledging not to filibuster judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, they agreed to oppose attempts to change filibuster procedures.

The agreement, meanwhile, continued to come under fire from both right and left. A coalition of liberal Democratic members of the House said the deal had been "brokered at the expense of our fundamental rights and precious system of checks and balances."

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said that the arrangement had provoked "anger and disgust" among conservatives and that its Republican architects had "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

Information from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified May 26, 2005, 01:18:13]

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