Owen confirmed; GOP says rule change still an option

by Michael Foust, posted Wednesday, May 25, 2005 (14 years ago)

WASHINGTON (BP)--The Senate confirmed embattled judicial nominee Priscilla Owen by a vote of 56-43 May 25, the same day that Republican senators continued insisting the so-called "nuclear option" remains a possibility.

Owen, who was part of the compromise over judicial filibusters that avoided a Senate showdown, passed with the support of 54 Republicans and two Democrats -- Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Mary Landrieu (La.). Voting against her were 41 Democrats, one independent and Republican Lincoln Chafee (R.I.). Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii did not vote.

Owen was nominated by President Bush more than four years ago but was filibustered by Senate Democrats, who said she was out of the judicial mainstream. Abortion rights groups led the opposition. Currently a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, she will sit on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R.-Texas, applauded Owen for her "integrity, commitment [and] patience" during the confirmation process.

"This is a long time coming," Hutchison said after the vote. "I don't know that anyone has waited four years to come to a successful conclusion."

Owen was part of the compromise by 14 senators whereby three nominees get an up-or-down vote and two don't. The other two compromise-backed nominees could be confirmed in the coming days. In addition, four justices that Democrats previously had pledged to stop blocking also could receive votes, although they were not part of the deal.

The compromise avoided a showdown on the Senate floor in which Republicans hoped to ban judicial filibusters through parliamentary procedure. It would have required a simple majority of 51 votes and was dubbed the "nuclear" or "constitutional" option." It normally takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Christian conservatives had backed the rule change, saying it could lead to conservative rulings on abortion, religious freedom and "gay marriage."

As part of the compromise by the 14 senators, seven Democrats pledged not to filibuster future nominees unless there were "extraordinary circumstances." The seven Republicans promised not to back a rule change.

But Republicans -- including ones who were part of the compromise -- insist that the "nuclear option" remains a future possibility if Democrats don't keep their end of the deal.

"If filibusters again erupt under circumstances other than extraordinary, we will put the constitutional option back on the table, and we'll implement it," Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., said on the Senate floor May 25.

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican who was part of the compromise, also said the rule change remains a possibility, although he hopes to avoid it. Warner was listed as "uncommitted" on the rule change and still has not said how he would have voted.

"[T]he constitutional option, which we call it, is not off the table. And we all 14 understand that. It is very much on the table," Warner said May 24 on FOX News' "Special Report with Brit Hume."

"To use an example, we simply unscrewed the fuse. But that fuse can be put back in if we detect that it's not extraordinary circumstances, [where] we're back to where the Democrats begin to trot out and do a leadership-led type of series of filibusters."

In such a circumstance, Warner said any of the seven Republicans could say, "Time out. I'm not satisfied that this is extraordinary circumstances as a matter of good conscience. I'm going to give leader Bill Frist the vote."

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said he believes the compromise only delayed the inevitable.

"I think that vote's going to ultimately take place," he said in a C-SPAN interview May 25. "... What this agreement did is put that off to another day."

Both Isakson and Sen. Trent Lott, R.-Miss., said they believe the rule change option had the votes for passage.

"I believe the votes were there if we had gotten to that," Isakson said.

Lott told FOX News: "It would have been very close. We would have probably gotten a 50-50 tie vote, with the vice president breaking the tie. Perhaps we would have had 51 before it was over."

Speaking on the floor May 25, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., criticized the continued talk of the "nuclear option."

"I think we should just move on," Reid said. "Filibusters are only under extraordinary circumstances. That's when you filibuster.... I think we should move beyond this. Let's go on and get the business of the country done. Let's not talk about the nuclear option anymore."

For his part, Frist said he hopes the "casual use of judicial filibusters is over."

"I am actually very hopeful now, and I am optimistic new, but I am curious -- curious what extraordinary circumstances will mean," he said on the floor. "I am wary, but as Ronald Reagan was fond to say, 'Trust but verify.'"


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