Senate confirms Owen for circuit court
Judicial nominee had been blocked by filibuster
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate approved Priscilla Owen on Wednesday for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, more than four years after President Bush first nominated her.
The vote was 55-43, largely along party lines. The court sits in New Orleans, Louisiana, and its jurisdiction is Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist congratulated the 50-year-old Texas Supreme Court justice and praised her as gracious, patient, bold and courageous.
"The fact that she is willing to put herself forward and has been beaten up mercilessly on the floor of the United States Senate but has stood tall ... says a lot for her," Frist said.
One of the senators who voted against Owen's confirmation, Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, said Owen is "at the extremes."
"Someone will be put on the [appellate] bench who puts the rights of employers over employees," he said, "who takes no consideration of environmental rights, women's rights or of just average people.
"It's no wonder that she was pushed ahead by certain groups in Texas and elsewhere because she always takes the side of the very powerful."
Before the voting began, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told his colleagues they should put the feuding over the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations behind them.
"We should just move on," Reid said. "Filibusters are [used] only under extraordinary circumstances. Filibusters don't happen very often, and I think we should move beyond this. Let's go on and get the business of the country done."
Frist, a Tennessee Republican, called the filibuster fight the "greatest single constitutional issue to confront the Senate in our lifetime."
He said an agreement reached by 14 senators Monday night left open questions and that he reserved the right to use the so-called "nuclear option," though he hopes never to have to invoke it.
The option is controversial because it would end a filibuster on a judicial nominee through a procedural vote requiring only a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes required under Senate rules for cloture to close off debate.
Such a move probably would set a precedent and permanently change the Senate rule governing the filibuster in a way that effectively circumvents the requirement that only a two-thirds vote can change a rule.
Senators voted Tuesday to close debate on Owen's nomination after the bipartisan agreement ended a Democratic filibuster of her and two other nominees. (Full story)
Two Democrats, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, voted to confirm Owen. One Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, voted against her confirmation. One Democrat, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, did not vote.
All four were among the 14 senators who negotiated the filibuster compromise.
Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska changed his vote from "yea" to "present" because he said he had originally agreed to pair his vote with Inouye's intended "nay" so each would cancel out the other.
Praise from Bush
"She is my friend and, more importantly, she is a great judge," President Bush, with Owen at his side, told reporters Tuesday at the White House. "She will honorably serve the federal bench."
Owen expressed her gratitude to Bush.
"Mr. President, thank you for nominating me," Owen told Bush. "I was very humbled by that. ... I appreciate the fact that I'm finally going to get a vote."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Owen's home state of Texas, applauded the vote.
"This is her day, and it is well deserved," Hutchison said. "She has shown absolute integrity, commitment, patience and above all judicial demeanor through this process."
Under the compromise reached Monday evening by seven Democratic and seven Republican senators, votes on Owen and two other nominees for appellate courts stalled by filibusters will go forward. (Related story)
The others are Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor.
The group made no commitment to vote for or against a filibuster on two nominees, William Myers and Henry Saad.
The group also agreed to oppose attempts to filibuster future judicial nominees except under "extraordinary circumstances."
The nominees under consideration have been tapped for federal appellate courts. But Supreme Court nominations, including the chief justice post, are likely at stake down the road.
Democrats had used threats of filibuster to block 10 of Bush's 218 first-term judicial nominees. The president renominated seven of them this year, including Owen.
Democrats had blocked her nomination from coming to a vote four times.
Supporters call her a no-nonsense, consistent conservative with long experience as a state judge.
Opponents say she is an extreme conservative who favored Texas corporations over working families and opposed abortion rights.
She was Bush's choice in 2001 to replace William L. Garwood, who retired from the appellate court eight years ago.