Senate opens debate on judicial nominee

Texas justice's candidacy could provoke another filibuster by Democrats


WASHINGTON - Debate over Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen's future could preoccupy the Senate for days, if not longer, with Republicans and Democrats alike suggesting significant time may be devoted to the federal appellate court candidate.

Senate debate on her nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans began in earnest yesterday, though the real action took place off the floor.

Senate Democrats and Republicans huddled separately at their weekly closed-door policy luncheons, plotting strategy and trying to divine what tactics the other side would use.

The central question is whether Democrats will filibuster the Texas judge's nomination, which would force the chamber's 51 Republicans to find nine additional votes to cut off debate and vote. The Democrats already are using the tactic against District of Columbia Circuit Court nominee Miguel Estrada, successfully blocking four GOP attempts since early March to force a vote.

If Republicans were hoping that the Democrats would emerge with a caucus position on whether to filibuster the Owen nomination, they were disappointed.

"We haven't come to any final conclusion," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "I would simply say that we have very, very deep concerns about this nominee. Senators expressed themselves one by one in caucus today, and we want to express ourselves on the floor and have a very vigorous debate."

Though Republicans had discussed the possibility of calling a vote yesterday - and forcing Democrats to reveal their hand on the filibuster question - they decided to let debate proceed for a day or so.

Their offers for six hours of debate, then 10, were rejected. Still, no one drew a line in the sand.

"There will be some more debate, and it might play out a little longer to see where they come down," an aide to a Republican in the Senate leadership said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "At some point, we will make a decision to move ahead with a request for a cloture vote or a more specific request to move ahead."

Democrats have privately said the filibuster question will come down to how strongly the caucus's nine women oppose Owen.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said a number of female senators spoke yesterday against the Texan's confirmation. "Overwhelmingly the women members oppose it and would like to filibuster," she said as she left the caucus.

Women's organizations, abortion-rights groups, and consumer and environmental concerns have battled the Owen candidacy since it was first tendered by the White House in May 2001. Critics argue she is a pro-business, anti-abortion activist who has allowed personal beliefs to unduly color her rulings.

Her defenders argue she is the victim of a left-wing smear campaign by groups insistent on blocking President Bush's nominees to the powerful circuit courts.

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