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Owen confirmed as federal appeals judge

Bush nominee is first OK'd since Senate agreement

WASHINGTON -- Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen won Senate confirmation as a federal appeals judge yesterday after a ferocious four-year battle, a personal triumph that also marked a victory for President Bush in his drive to install conservatives in the nation's highest courts.

The 55-to-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 Senate centrists meant to end years of partisan gridlock.

''We cannot stop with this single step," Senate 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 two-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," he said.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he was ''ready to put all this behind us and move on."

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

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, Frist 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 strongly 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 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 following Monday's 81-to-18 vote to advance her nomination to the brink of confirmation.

Since her nomination in 2001 to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, Democrats have argued that Owen has displayed a tendency for judicial activism, allowing her political beliefs to color her rulings. In particular, they pointed to an abortionrelated 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 countered that such contentions were politically motivated and noted she easily won election to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994 and reelection 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 reelection, Owen logged nine hours of hearings before the Judiciary Committee and filed 900 pages of written answers to questions posed by members of the panel.

Republicans said that over the years the Senate spent parts or all of 22 days debating her nomination -- a total 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 Republicans, as well as Democratic senators Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana. Opposed were 41 Democrats, Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, did not vote.

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 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 wording of the agreement was deliberately vague, prompting critics to contend it would not survive. But participants in the negotiations said their accomplishment was underestimated.

''Certainly it's a very good sign that 81 senators voted for" ending the filibuster against Owen, said Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine.

And Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, said that if a future nominee comes before the Senate that some centrist Democrats want to filibuster, they will ''talk to others in the group, and I think we'll pass the test."

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