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Senate Confirms Owen as Appeals Court Judge

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Senate has confirmed Priscilla Owen to the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The vote was 56 to 43. Owen's nomination was pending for more than four years, but it was consistently blocked by the Democrats. Her confirmation was the first fruit of the agreement by a group of senators from both parties. That agreement allows votes on some of the president's judicial nominations. NPR's Brian Naylor has the story.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

If anything, the vote today was an anti-climax. Democrats all but conceded Owen's approval Monday when the agreement between the gang of 14 moderates included her along with Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor as the nominees who would no longer be blocked. Still, for Republican Leader Bill Frist, it was a moment to savor.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): A great victory for the United States Senate, a great victory for the American people and, of course, a great victory for someone who has been very, very patient, very, very courageous, very, very bold throughout, Priscilla Owen.

NAYLOR: Owen, who is 50, currently sits on the Texas Supreme Court. She was nominated to the Appeals Court early in President Bush's first term. Democrats labeled her an extreme conservative, citing her rulings on issues ranging from parental choice to workers' rights. After the vote, New York Democrat Charles Schumer remained an opponent.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Priscilla Owen has just passed, and the loser is the American people. Someone will be put on the bench who puts the rights of employers over employees, who takes no consideration of environmental rights, women's rights or just average people.

NAYLOR: President Bush issued a statement saying Owen will bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the job. He also urged senators to give his other judicial nominees the up-or-down votes that, in his words, they deserve. In fact, Majority Leader Frist indicated there will soon be votes on Brown and Pryor after the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess.

But unresolved are the fates of two judicial nominees, Henry Saad and William Myers. Both were specifically exempted in the agreement for stalling future judicial filibusters, except under extraordinary circumstances. And Frist says he isn't sure how they will be handled.

Sen. FRIST: The agreement for both Myers and Saad is a little bit agnostic, and that's why I and our leadership did not endorse this agreement vote by the 14. It stops short of guaranteeing these nominees an up-or-down vote.

NAYLOR: But Frist said he will send those nominations to the floor, in his words, at some time. Texas Republican John Cornyn, who has denounced the bipartisan agreement, says if Democrats allowed an up-or-down vote on Owen, they should not object to any of the president's nominees.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): In other words, it should mean that no disagreement about judicial philosophy should justify the use of the filibuster from this point forward, if this agreement means anything.

NAYLOR: Frist began debate on the Owen nomination somewhat testily this morning, accusing Democrats of making a power grab by filibuster. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid responded sharply saying, quote, "Get over this. We have important things to do." The exchange illustrated that while there may be a spirit of cooperation among moderates from both sides, partisan tensions between party leaders remain strong as ever. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 26, 2005 at 2:06 PM CDT
In the audio for this feature, the Senate vote to confirm Priscilla Owen was misstated. It was 55-43.
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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.