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The Senate Judiciary Committee’s rejection of Priscilla Owen for an appeals court judgeship Thursday came just hours after an unusual last-minute plea from President George W. Bush to a committee member. According to three GOP sources, the president picked up the phone before the 10 a.m. committee meeting and lobbied Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to vote for Owen. The chief executive’s one-on-one chat shows the personal stake he felt in the Owen nomination. But it proved to no avail. Feingold joined all nine other committee Democrats in voting against Owen, sinking the nomination on a highly charged party-line vote. One administration official says that as of the morning of the vote, Feingold was the only committee Democrat who had not already made clear he was voting against Owen and, thus, was the logical target of persuasion. “I can definitely confirm that the president was personally engaged with this nomination, up to the last minute,” says a White House source. The call was not the first discussion the president had with Feingold about Owen, according to Capitol Hill and White House sources. Soon after Owen’s July 23 hearing, Bush met separately at the White House with both Feingold and his fellow Wisconsin Democrat and committee member, Sen. Herbert Kohl. Neither man broke ranks, and after Owen was defeated for a spot on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the president issued a blistering statement terming Owen’s defeat “shameful, even by Washington standards.” The president noted that he knows Owen well and that he considers her “an outstanding individual with a record of accomplishment and a brilliant legal mind.” Feingold press secretary Ari Geller declines comment on the contacts between the senator and the White House. White House spokeswoman Anne Womack declines to discuss the president’s lobbying of Democratic senators. She notes, however, that Bush took such a direct interest in the nomination that he called Owen immediately after the vote to commiserate and to praise her record as a Texas state judge. “The president feels badly abused by the defeat of Owen,” says an administration official. “He was heavily invested in this and tried to do whatever he could behind the scenes.” “Now, I suspect that what the Democrats have done is stir up the hornet’s nest,” says this official, warning that the nominations process is likely to become even more polarized. Republicans on the committee certainly seemed agitated. “This is a changing of the ground rules. This politicizes the judiciary itself,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “I don’t think the Democratic members understand the risk we are taking when we make politics and ideology a part of the confirmation process.” Senators who rarely take the lead on confirmation issues jumped into the fray. Pointing out that Owen had been rated “well-qualified” by the American Bar Association, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said the committee had “crossed a major line” into out-and-out partisanship in rejecting the nominee. “It’s hard not to be angry,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “We’ve passed a threshold. I won’t be voting the same way in the future that I have in the past. It’s a sad day for the Senate.” But Owen’s opponents blame the president for politicizing judicial nominations. Owen, 47, was criticized by abortion rights and women’s groups for her opinions as a Texas Supreme Court justice in a series of so-called parental notification cases. In a dozen appeals in 2000, young women sought the court’s permission to have abortions without notifying their parents, and Owen frequently took the view that the teen-agers had not shown a good reason for their requests to be granted under a state law. Owen was also assailed by labor, environmental, and consumer groups for allegedly siding with business interests against injured persons and consumers. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the Thursday committee meeting that although it is regrettable that the panel was dividing along partisan lines, “the ultimate blame falls on the White House.” “The White House has to understand that they can’t pack the courts with conservative nominees and expect this committee to be a rubber stamp,” he said. “If this nation had wanted more [Antonin] Scalias and [Clarence] Thomases, it would have elected George W. Bush by an overwhelming majority, not a narrow electoral vote margin, and it would have provided 60 conservative senators.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, “This is a difficult vote for me. I have never voted against a woman before. I have met Priscilla Owen, and I like her very much. But a consumer attorney from Texas told me that there is not a single consumer-rights attorney in the state who feels he’d get a fair shake in her courtroom.” ESTRADA UP NEXT The president has already taken some unusual steps this year to try to help his embattled judicial nominees. For example, he brought Owen to town for a highly publicized photo opportunity in July. And, in March, he invited another 5th Circuit nominee, Mississippi U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering Sr., to the White House at a time when Pickering’s nomination was in jeopardy. Pickering was voted down 10-9 a few days later. The next controversial judicial nominee in the spotlight will be Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Miguel Estrada, nominated for the D.C. Circuit. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has indicated that a hearing on Estrada will take place this month. An administration source says a likely date is Sept. 26, although that has not been formally announced. Liberal groups have been examining Estrada’s record as a federal prosecutor, assistant to the solicitor general, and private attorney to get some clues about his stance on major issues. So far, they have found little to go on. That points up an important difference between Estrada and the two defeated appeals courts nominees. Both Owen and Pickering had already served as judges and had written dozens of opinions — offering critics a paper trail to follow. That is not true of Estrada or of other controversial Bush nominees, such as Michael McConnell for the 10th Circuit, John Roberts Jr. for the D.C. Circuit, and Jeffrey Sutton for the 6th Circuit, who have not yet had hearings. The president and even the vice president have gone out of their way to publicly praise Estrada, and attention promises to intensify as Estrada’s hearing draws near. Democrats say they’ll apply the same test to Estrada and to the other nominees as they did to Owen. Schumer said in a Sept. 5 statement that while “moderates will sail through the Senate, activists and ideologues are going to have a much more difficult voyage.” An administration official says, however, that cynicism is in order after the Owen defeat. “These liberal groups are political and character assassins,” says this source. “If they don’t have something on a nominee, they’ll make something up. So you’ll just see more distortions of the record.” Says a White House source: “We don’t expect the process to be a cakewalk, and we don’t expect it to be fair. We will no longer be naive.”

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