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Showdown looms in the Senate over president's judicial nominees


WASHINGTON - California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and Texas judge Priscilla Owen were named yesterday as the judicial nominees who will be considered by the Senate next week, a move expected to trigger a long-awaited showdown with Democrats.

The announcement yesterday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, propels Brown and Owen, a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, to center stage of a political brawl that has gripped the Senate for weeks - use of the filibuster against a president's picks for federal judgeships.

The tactic is the weapon of the weak in the Senate - a procedural move allowing unlimited debate. It requires 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to end a filibuster; winning confirmation requires a simple majority of 51.

Democrats relied on the filibuster threat to block President Bush's nomination of Brown, Owen and eight others to federal appellate courts during his first term, saying they were too conservative. Bush resubmitted seven of the nominees this year, including Brown and Owen.

Republicans say they all deserve an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. With Republicans holding 55 seats in the chamber, Bush's choices would likely be confirmed.

Brown and Owen were among the nominees whom Democrats have said they would again filibuster against. Republicans have responded by threatening to change the rules to bar use of the filibuster against judicial nominees.

In a response issued by his office, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, welcomed the debate.

"The time has come for Republican senators to decide whether they will abide by the rules of the Senate or break those rules for the first time in 217 years of American history," his statement said. "It is time to say no to this abuse of power."

The showdown on the issue is expected shortly after the Senate votes on a highway funding bill it has been debating. A vote on that bill is expected early next week, said Bob Stevenson, Frist's spokesman.

Stevenson said that at some point, Frist would call up the nomination of one of the two, a move he said would "initiate the discussion of the rules."

In ads that have run in targeted states and nationally on cable television, opponents and proponents of the filibuster rule have focused on Brown and Owen and on their records.

Brown has been nominated to serve on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia; Owen has been nominated to serve on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans.

Brown, who is black, grew up poor in the segregated South of the 1950s. She emerged as a conservative critic of affirmative action and government benefit programs in the 1980s. She has been praised by conservatives - and slammed by liberals - for some of her speeches.

Speaking at Pepperdine University in 1999, Brown disputed the doctrine of separation of church and state. She also questioned whether the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, applied to the states.

Owen, who received the highest score among her group when she took the Texas bar exam, has been characterized by her critics as an ultraconservative who bends her decisions to fit her political views, such as her opposition to abortion rights. They have attacked her decisions for routinely favoring law firms, corporations and insurance companies in disputes with consumers.

Owen's supporters say she is a distinguished jurist who interprets the law narrowly and has impeccable intellectual credentials.

The Republican push to eliminate use of the filibuster for judicial nominees has become known as "the nuclear option." Democrats have said that if the GOP succeeds in its effort, they would respond by slowing much of the Senate's business.

Frist's announcement came even as the two parties continued to search for a compromise yesterday.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, pointed out that the two Senate leaders are scheduled to get together tomorrow night at Frist's house. The GOP leader is throwing a dinner for several senators, giving him and Reid an opportunity to talk then about the filibuster issue.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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