Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen won Senate confirmation as a federal appeals judge Wednesday after a ferocious four-year battle, a personal triumph that also marked a victory for President Bush in his drive to install conservatives on the nation’s highest courts.
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 Senate centrists 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,” he said. “It is the only way to close this miserable and unprecedented chapter in Senate history.”
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 added later at a news conference in which Democratic leaders urged renewed attention to the economy, health care, defense and other issues.
In a statement issued at the White House, Bush said Owen “has served with distinction on the Supreme Court of Texas, has demonstrated that she strictly interprets the law and brings a wealth of experience and expertise” to the appeals court.
“I urge the Senate to build on this progress and provide my judicial nominees the up or down votes they deserve.”
Frist was eager to comply. He 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. Aides said it was possible the two appointments would be the first issues brought before the Senate after an upcoming weeklong recess.
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 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.
The final debate over Owen’s nomination was utterly without suspense following 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 argued that 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 countered that 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 in all, 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 parts or all of 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 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. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a supporter of Owen, voted present. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-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 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 wording of the agreement was deliberately vague, prompting critics to claim it would not be able to 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 on Tuesday, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
And Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., 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.”