WASHINGTON – Two state judges previously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward again on Thursday as Republicans used their 10-8 advantage on the panel to confirm Priscilla Owen (search) and Janice Rogers Brown (search) for federal appeals court seats.
The movement to the full Senate for consideration sets up a showdown over Democratic filibusters, which killed the two nominations as well as several others in President Bush's last term.
Bush nominated Owen, a Texas Supreme Court judge, for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. California judge Brown was picked by the president for a lifetime slot on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
Owen was first nominated by Bush in May 2001. Brown was tapped originally in July 2003. Bush renominated the two when the 109th Congress convened in January.
Both candidates were seen by Democrats as too conservative — Owen because her opinions and rulings are overly influenced by her pro-business and anti-abortion beliefs, and Brown because her personal opinions have led her to decisions limiting abortion rights and corporate liability and opposing affirmative action.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (search) of Utah, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told FOX News that the Democrats disapprove of the nominees because their opinions "are not the liberal left opinions that they would like to see judges do.
"It's pathetic what they are doing to these two women and I think it's time for women all over America to start standing up and say, 'Hey, enough is enough,'" Hatch said.
Democrats have indicated that they do plan to filibuster both women. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Owen's nomination "is going to precipitate a confrontation that we do not need."
"Since we last considered this nomination, nothing has changed to make us think she should be confirmed," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said of Owen.
A filibuster (search) takes 60 votes to overcome. Because Republicans have 55 votes in the Senate, they would need the backing of five Democrats to overcome the procedure that effectively prevents a final vote on the candidate. Final approval of a candidate would need only 51 votes, hence the Democratic decision to employ filibusters.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., has threatened to employ the "nuclear option," (search) a rules change that would ban judicial filibusters and stop Democrats from blocking judges. Frist has been working to secure the 50 votes he needs from his Republican caucus to make the rules change. Vice President Dick Cheney would be the 51st vote in case of a tie.
On Thursday, Frist released a statement that suggested he was making headway.
"In the last Congress, these highly qualified women were blocked by a partisan filibuster when Democrats refused to give them an up or down vote," Frist said. "Soon, all 100 senators will have to decide if these highly qualified candidates will get a fair up or down vote on the Senate floor."
Earlier in the day, it had appeared that Frist was losing support for the nuclear option after the Hill newspaper suggested that Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (search) of Pennsylvania had signaled a GOP retreat on the push to trigger the nuclear option.
The story suggested that Santorum is "applying the brakes" on the nuclear option in the face of "adverse internal party polls."
But Santorum told reporters on Thursday that the story was flat-out wrong and that from his standpoint he had seen no change in momentum. He added that he has said all along that it's "up to the leader to decide one way or another."
Speaking to FOX News, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., added that "those who might be getting a bit squeamish looking at public opinion polls need to realize that at the end of the day the right is going to prevail ... and the right is making sure the Senate is fulfilling its constitutional duty."
Polls have shown that Democrats have been successful in conveying the argument that if they prevent filibusters, Republicans would be taking away a long-standing tradition in the Senate and reducing the advise and consent authority of the Senate.
Banking on public support, Democratic leader Harry Reid (search) threatened to slow or halt Senate action on routine business if Frist follows through with the nuclear option. However, Democrats have promised to continue to filibuster all seven nominees blocked during Bush's first term. Democrats blocked 10 judicial nominees from confirmation through filibuster threats. Three withdrew and Bush renominated the rest.
Hatch said he hopes Republicans have "the guts" to stand up to Democratic threats.
"There has never been a filibuster (of a judicial nominee) in the tradition of the Senate and the Democrats are throwing that tradition overboard and doing it for partisan reasons and that's just not right. I hope the Republicans have the guts to stand up and say 'enough is enough. We're not going to allow that.'"
But in a press conference on Thursday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who supports both Owen and Brown, said that Republicans do not have a "plan B" if they don't get the 51 votes they need to ban filibusters of nominees.
She added that a number of her colleagues are concerned about "what is happening to our judges (because of) the precedent that the Democrats set in the last session.
"We are trying to determine what is the consensus of the best approach because this precedent has been broken," she said.
Another of Bush's blocked nominees, Idaho lawyer William Myers, already has been approved by the Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said that he believes that Myers could get enough votes to survive a filibuster and he was looking for ways to get enough Democrats to agree to enough nominees so as to avoid a vote on the filibuster ban.
Santorum said Republicans won't compromise on the notion that no nominee should be filibustered, rejecting Specter's proposal to vote up or down on some but not all the nominees. Santorum said that "over the next week or two" Republicans will decide whether to use the nuclear option.
Conservatives say they are expecting the situation to reach a head over Brown, Owen or U.S. Appeals Court Judge William Pryor (search), who was given a temporary appointment by Bush after he was blocked by Democrats. Pryor's nomination is likely to be advanced by the Judiciary Committee next week.
One of the president's nominees who was supposed to get a vote in the committee on Thursday will also have to wait a little longer. North Carolina judge Terrence W. Boyle (search), a former aide to retired Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has been waiting for Kennedy to review some of his rulings as a U.S. District judge. Boyle was never filibustered by Democrats because his nomination was blocked in committee by then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
FOX News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.