Senate votes to move ahead; confirmation unclear
WASHINGTON – A bitterly divided U.S. Senate on Friday advanced Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to a final vote, but it was still unclear if he will have enough support to be placed on the high court.
Two key senators – one Republican and one Democrat – who voted to end debate have not said whether they will back confirmation in a vote that could happen as soon as Saturday.
The final vote is not just the chance for Republicans to shift the court to the right for what could be decades, but is also a test of how public officials respond to the raw emotions unleashed by the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh as part of the #MeToo movement.
A main reason Republicans voted for President Donald Trump – to put conservatives on the court – is also in play, as is control of Congress in the midterm elections.
Confirmation would require 51 votes – or a 50-50 vote with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie. The Senate is split with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.
If Pence is needed to get Kavanaugh over the finish line, it would be the first time a vice president has cast the deciding vote for a Supreme Court nominee.
Senators voted 51 to 49 to end debate with two lawmakers crossing party lines.
“Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting “YES” to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!” Trump tweeted.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican to vote against Kavanaugh, called it one of the most difficult decisions of her career.
“I believe that Brett Kavanaugh is a good man, I believe he is a good man,” Murkowski said after the vote. “But it just may be that, in my view, he’s not the right man for the court at this time.”
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to vote to end debate. He has not said whether he will vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
About two hours before the vote, Manchin headed to the secure basement room inside the Capitol complex to continuing reviewing the 46-page FBI report on Kavanaugh and the charges of sexual assault made by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez.
Reporters pounced, asking Manchin if he’d made up his mind. He said he hadn’t. Then kept walking.
Two of the Republican holdouts – Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona – had seemed pleased Thursday with the report.
Both backed ending debate and Flake said he will vote for confirmation unless something significant changes.
Collins said she will announce her decision Friday afternoon.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close friend of Flake’s who helped convince him to call for an additional FBI investigation, said before Friday’s vote that he didn’t know what Flake would do. But the two talked in the morning, Coons said, and Flake allowed him to make multiple points.
“Look, Senator Flake is a conservative. He wants a conservative for the Supreme Court,” Coons said. “It’s important to remember we came into this with different views.”
Murkowski later told reporters she made up her mind as she walked into the chamber Friday morning.
“This has truly been the most difficult evaluation of a decision that I’ve ever had to make and I’ve made some interesting ones in my political career,” she said afterward.
She had sat stone-faced after casting her vote, her hands clasped across her lap and staring straight ahead as her colleagues voted for and against ending debate.
At one point, Collins leaned in, and the two of them chatted. Collins put her right hand on Murkowski’s armrest.
After the vote, lawmakers gathered around Murkowski on the Senate floor and huddled for a heated conversation.
“People just wanted to let them know that we appreciated her and there’s gonna be another vote coming soon and we’re going to need her,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the head of the GOP conference.
But Thune said he would “be surprised” if Murkowski changed her mind and voted to confirm Kavanaugh Saturday.
An opinion piece Kavanaugh wrote Thursday in The Wall Street Journal was meant to reassure senators who had expressed concern about his temperament after his angry testimony last week, two officials familiar with the process said.
But the American Bar Association announced Friday it’s reopening its evaluation of Kavanaugh because of “new information of a material nature regarding temperament.” The review will not be done before the final vote. Republicans have been touting the ABA’s previous “well qualified” rating of Kavanaugh as the “gold standard.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation has intensified the polarization between parties as both Republicans and Democrats hurled insults and salacious claims over the weeks to keep public opinion on their side.
Kavanaugh’s nomination, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said before the vote, “will go down as one of the saddest, most sordid chapters in the long history of the federal judiciary.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged his colleagues to send a message to the American people that some core principles remain unfettered by partisan passions of this moment.
“Facts matter. Fairness matters. Presumption of innocence (matters),” McConnell said.
The vote on Kavanaugh, who denies accusations of sexual assault, has been seen as a test for the #MeToo movement, and its results could reverberate into next month’s midterm elections. In the end, though, Kavanaugh’s appointment would tilt the balance of power on the high court to conservatives for years to come.
Both parties think the fight will motivate their voters to get to the polls Nov. 6. Democrats are seen as having a good shot of capturing the House, fueled in part by anger among female voters. But Senate Democrats are defending multiple seats in states Trump easily carried, making the Kavanaugh vote a potential liability.
Manchin, one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election, was confronted in the Capitol on Thursday by a protester who said she was a victim of sexual assault. On Monday, Manchin talked on a conference call with some of the more than a dozen women who had staged a sit-in at his campaign headquarters in West Virginia.
Each vote in the razor-thin Republican majority will carry more weight than usual as Kavanaugh’s appointment will hold for life.
Kavanaugh was criticized for his aggressive tone during a hearing last week with Ford, one of the women who accused him of sexual assault. Kavanaugh, during the hearing, accused liberals of orchestrating a “political hit” on him and repeatedly called out Democrats.
In his opinion piece published before Friday’s vote, Kavanaugh regretted his “sharp” tone and wrote he’d said “a few things I should not have” during the hearings. He said the comments should not be seen as any type of bias and promised to always keep an open mind as a judge.
Kavanaugh’s nomination always was destined to become a partisan battleground because of the justice he was picked to replace: Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote, who had sided with his liberal colleagues on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and gay rights. Kennedy, 81, retired after three decades in the middle of the court’s ideological battles.
Contributing: Richard Wolf and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY.
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