Democrats Block Vote On Bush Court Nominee

Senate Democrats yesterday blocked a prompt vote on President Bush's nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to a federal appeals court but stopped short of saying they will attempt to prevent her confirmation.

Democrats are already thwarting a confirmation vote for another appellate nominee, Miguel Estrada, and are struggling over whether to use Senate filibuster rules requiring 60 votes to end debate to try to defeat a second of Bush's sharply contested nominations.

Owen's initial nomination to the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit was rejected by the Judiciary Committee when Democrats controlled the Senate last year. But her nomination was approved after Republicans took over this year.

Democrats contend she is a judicial "activist" who has let her antiabortion and pro-business views influence her decisions, while Republicans argue that she is a highly qualified and fair-minded choice who would not be swayed by personal views as a federal judge.

Democrats discussed strategy at their weekly policy luncheon yesterday but reached no conclusion about whether to block the nomination indefinitely, according to Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). He said Democrats have "very, very deep concerns" about Owen and want a "very full and open debate" but said "we haven't come to any final conclusion" about whether to allow a vote after a specified amount of time for debate.

Later, when Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) sought agreement for a vote after six hours of debate and then modified it to cover 10 hours, Democratic Whip Harry M. Reid (Nev.) objected. When Bennett asked if "any number of hours would be sufficient," Reid said, "Speaking for the senator from Nevada, there is not a number in the universe that would be sufficient."

Asked if this suggested a filibuster was coming, a Democratic source said it was too early to make such a decision but that Democrats would not agree to a vote before Owen's qualifications were fully explored in debate. Several others said a vote was unlikely before the Senate leaves for a two-week recess on Thursday or Friday.

Conferees Approve

Amber Alert Bill

House and Senate negotiators agreed yesterday on a bill aimed at preventing the abduction and exploitation of children. It includes funding for the Amber Alert, which allows states to post notices of suspected abductions on highway signs, TV and radio.

The family of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted but eventually rescued, had lobbied for the Amber bill.

"It's done and it's a great victory," Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), one of the conferees, said last night. The measure is popular in the House, but may encounter problems in the Senate, since it also includes tough sentencing guidelines for sexual offenders and new grounds for wiretapping.

-- Helen Dewar

and Juliet Eilperin