WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Priscilla Owen (search) as a federal judge, ending a four-year effort by Democrats to derail one of President Bush's prime judicial nominees.
The vote was 56-43 in favor of sending Owen to the federal bench. Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee (search) opposed her confirmation. Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted for Owen. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, one of the 14 negotiators who sought to allow Owen's vote and Democrats' to maintain the filibuster option, did not vote.
"This is a long time coming," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, told reporters after the vote. "I think she has shown absolute integrity, commitment, patience and above all, judicial demeanor through this process. I commend her for it. This is her day and it is well deserved."
After the vote, lawmakers began debate on the nomination of John R. Bolton (search) to be U.N. ambassador.
Bolton, the outspoken State Department official who has been accused of bullying subordinates and discounting intelligence data that contradicted his ideology, seemed likely to be confirmed by week's end. But Reid vowed this week to have his party debate the nominee, who is opposed by many Democrats.
After the Owen vote, Bush said his nominee would bring "a wealth of experience and expertise" to the bench and said his other picks should be voted on. "I urge the Senate to build on this progress and provide my judicial nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve," the president said in a statement.
Owen, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., "withstood an orchestrated partisan attack on her record."
"A supremely qualified nominee received the up-or-down vote she deserved," said fellow Texan Sen. John Cornyn. The vote, the Republican senator said, was "something we could have done four years ago."
Added Sen. Trent Lott, R-Texas: "This lady has been so maligned and subdued for four years. She deserves to be confirmed and go to the bench so I'm pleased with that."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (search) of Nevada said before the vote that he would vote against Owen because of her "extreme ideological approach to the law." He said she consistently ruled in favor of big business and corporate interests and against consumers and workers.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Republicans are asking Democrats for unanimous consent to bring up the confirmation of Janice Rogers Brown (search) for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by the end of the week. Sources told FOX News that lawmakers are close to an agreement on that.
Republicans also want a deal on William Pryor Jr. (search) for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals so that his confirmation vote can be held next week. That would clear the three most controversial nominees for confirmation.
An aide in Reid's office told FOX News that Democrats intend to filibuster Myers' nomination; that could bring the entire filibuster agreement reached earlier this week to its knees. Some Republicans have said if judges like Myers are filibustered as an obstructionist ploy, they would throw their weight behind bringing in the nuclear option.
Frist on Wednesday lamented a deal brokered by a bipartisan group of 14 senators this week that sidetracked his attempt to permanently bar the minority from using the filibuster (search) to block judicial nominations. The majority leader has said however, that he will not hesitate in the future to use the so-called "nuclear option," which would put an end to judicial filibustering and force an up-or-down vote on the nominees.
Reid, who understood the deal to mean the nuclear option isn't an option, said Wednesday the Senate should put the filibuster dispute behind it and get back to work on other issues. "We should just move on," he said. "It's over with."
Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who helped negotiate the compromise, said all 14 senators involved understood that the nuclear option wasn't thrown out for good.
"The 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 told FOX News. "To use an example, we simply unscrewed the fuse. But that fuse can be put back in."
Kicking The Can Down the Road
Frist said Democratic use of procedural delaying tactics to stop Owen and nine other Bush judicial nominees was "a new and dangerous course" and "a power grab of unprecedented proportions."
Other Republicans agreed that the deal was just another way to "kick the can down the road" and postpone another inevitable fight.
"The big issue will be the Supreme Court vacancy," Sen. Allen told FOX News, referring to the expected upcoming vacancy on that bench once the ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist becomes too ill to serve. "And we don't want to be going through this sort of battle as opposed to the qualifications of the nominee. And unfortunately it seems to me that we will."
Owen, 50, was subjected to nine hours of hearings, answered more than 500 questions and endured 22 days of floor debate.
Wednesday's vote to confirm Owen to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) comes a day after the Senate, in line with the filibuster deal, agreed to break the filibuster that had kept her off the federal bench. The vote Tuesday to end debate and move to confirmation was 81-18.
Owen celebrated her breakthrough Tuesday with a visit to the White House, where she told the president she would remember "that you expect judges to follow the law."
"She is my friend, and more importantly, she's a great judge," Bush said.
Four times in the past the Republican majority failed to come up with the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and bring Owen's nomination to a vote. Democratic opponents said her views were too conservative for the lifetime appointment.
"If there was ever a judge who would substitute her own views for the law, it is Judge Owen," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "It doesn’t matter how brilliant a nominee is, what a great education and career she has had, if she puts her views above the law’s, she doesn’t belong on the bench. And in cases after case she knows better than hundreds of years of legal tradition."
Senate leaders also announced Tuesday that they had agreed to take up the long-pending nominations of three Michigan judges.
Lawmakers on both sides of the filibuster issue, which had threatened to split the Senate apart, questioned whether the compromise, crafted by seven Republican and seven Democratic senators, would hold.
"This is merely a truce, it is not a treaty yet," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, who with Frist had advocated a new procedure that would have deprived the minority of the filibuster to block judicial nominations. "An awful lot depends on good faith."
Loss of the votes of the seven Republicans who signed onto the agreement stopped Frist from moving forward with the new procedure, which Democrats said would seriously erode minority rights and negate the minority's voice on future Supreme Court nominations.
In turn, the seven Democratic signers pledged that they would resort to judicial filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances."
Reid joined three other Democratic leaders, Dick Durbin (search), D-Ill., Schumer and Debby Stabenow (search), D-Mich., in writing to Bush, urging him to take advantage of the compromise to "engage in real consultation with the Senate on future judicial nominations."
"The events should say to him, consult and if you don't and choose somebody and continue to choose people who weigh at the extremes, way off the deep end, then there's not going to be the kind of comity and smooth sailing for judicial appointments that we all would want," Schumer said.
Sen. Christopher Bond (search), R-Mo., said the agreement was a Band-Aid rather than "the scalpel needed to fix the underlying problem."
On the Democratic side, the House Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement saying it opposed a deal "that trades judges who oppose our civil rights for a temporary filibuster cease-fire."
Owen was born in 1954 in Palacios, Texas, a small fishing and agriculture community on the Gulf Coast. Her father died of polio shortly before her first birthday.
She earned a law degree from Baylor University (search) in 1977, finishing at the top of her class and scoring highest among those taking the bar before entering private practice in Houston.
She easily won election to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994 and re-election in 2000.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.