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SHOWDOWN LOOMS AS PANEL ENDORSES JUDICIAL NOMINEES

Moving the Senate closer to a historic confrontation, the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee Thursday endorsed two of President Bush's most controversial nominees to federal appellate court and Democrats vowed once again to use the filibuster to block their confirmation.

The committee, voting 10-8 along party lines, endorsed Janice Rogers Brown of California for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Patricia Richman Owen of Texas for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Both were nominated, endorsed by the Judiciary Committee and ultimately blocked by the Democrats in Bush's first term, along with eight other appeals court nominees.

Thursday's action therefore sets up a replay of past battles, but with potentially far greater consequences. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has threatened to change Senate rules to ban filibusters for judicial nominations, clearing the way for them to be confirmed by a simple majority vote. But Democrats have threatened to bring the Senate to a virtual halt if Frist invokes what has been called the "nuclear option" on such nominations.

The Associated Press, however, quoting anonymous officials, said a recent survey taken for Senate Republicans showed just 37 percent support in the Senate for the GOP plan to deny Democrats the ability to filibuster judicial nominees, while 51 percent oppose.

Republicans carefully chose their nominees for a Senate confrontation that could occur sometime in the next month, assuming that they can put Democrats, who pride themselves on appealing to women and black voters, on the defensive if they try again to deny two women, one of them an African-American, an up-or-down vote.

But Democrats long have argued that race and gender aside, Owen and Brown are conservative ideologues whose views and writings make them unfit to serve in such sensitive, lifetime positions. Brown has said active governments lead to "a debased, debauched culture."

"We're in the ramp-up to a great constitutional crisis," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

Lawmakers said Thursday's committee vote removed any doubts that Senate GOP leaders are closing in on their threat to change the chamber's rules and ban filibusters of judicial nominees.

Republicans said voters will punish Democrats if they bog down the Senate and kill energy bills, spending measures and other potentially popular items. But Democrats said Republicans, especially Bush, are to blame for renominating the two women and other appellate court nominees who were blocked by filibusters in his first term.

"President Bush is responsible for the ill will that has plagued this body for the past few years and the potentially disastrous upending of Senate precedents that we may soon see," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice, and Brown, a California Supreme Court justice, have solid conservative records and histories of making colorful remarks, which liberal groups have attacked for years. Democrats said their records, and nothing else, make them unsuitable for federal appellate court seats. "No one can seriously believe that objections to Justice Brown's nomination are motivated by racial or gender prejudice," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

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