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Senate Heads Toward Filibuster Showdown


The debate over the nomination of a Texas Supreme Court judge to be a judge on the federal Court of Appeals enters a second day today in the Senate. Supporters of Priscilla Owen have extolled her virtues. Opponents criticized her rulings. The debate, however, focuses on the larger battle being fought over the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

It was not an ordinary day in the US Senate. There was no talk in the chamber about energy, Social Security, Iraq or anything except judges and the rules that govern the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist began the long-anticipated debate saying it was time to have an up or down vote on Priscilla Owen, the president's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats have blocked Owen's nomination, charging she holds extreme conservative views. Frist, however, said it was Democrats who are acting in the extreme by using the filibuster to block judicial nominations.

Senator BILL FRIST (Majority Leader): In the last Congress, the minority destroyed 214 years of Senate tradition, defied the clear intent of the Constitution and undermined the democratic will of the American people. You can't get much more radical than that.

NAYLOR: As the potentially far-reaching debate was getting under way, the two sides continues skirmishing. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid asked Frist to take up some of the president's judicial nominees considered less controversial before debating Owen. Frist refused, and Reid responded by blocking committee hearings for the day. Reid then opened his side of the debate, saying filibustering judicial nominees was crucial to protecting the rights of the minority.

Senator HARRY REID (Minority Leader): Right now the only check on President Bush is Democrats' ability to voice their concern in this body of the Senate. If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power.

NAYLOR: Democrats made plain their opposition to Owen. They pointed to opinions she had written on parental consent and victims' rights, opinions Democrats charged were out of the mainstream. Republicans pointed to her popularity in Texas, her teaching of Sunday school and charged she was being caricatured by Democrats. But inevitably, the two sides returned to the big picture. Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said President Bush's nomination of Owen was an attempt to turn away from judicial activism exhibited by judges in some recent high-profile cases.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): We've seen the Pledge of Allegiance be struck down by federal courts. We've seen the erosion of rights of property protected by the Fifth Amendment that says you can't take someone's property without paying them for it. We've had courts redefine the meaning of marriage.

NAYLOR: Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called it a fight worth having. In order to get the up or down vote on Owen that Republicans want, Majority Leader Frist is threatening to change the rules of the Senate so that Democrats can't require 60 votes to move on the nomination and Republicans would need just a simple majority. Democrat Ted Kennedy said that would lead to a change in the very nature of the Senate.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The Senate majority will always be able to get its way, and the Senate our founders created will no longer exist. It will be an echo chamber to the House, where the tyranny of the majority is so rampant today.

NAYLOR: While the two sides were debating the judicial filibusters on the floor, negotiations continued between an ever-growing number of senators from both parties who are searching for a way to pull back from the brink of the so-called nuclear option. A spokesman for Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, among those leading the talks, said Nelson felt good progress had been made but that a deal still remained out of reach.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.