WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Friday to advance Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate, but in a dramatic reversal, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he would not support final confirmation until the FBI investigates accusations of sexual assault leveled against Kavanaugh.
The decision put a cloud over what Republicans expected to be a triumphant day, but they still had reason to be optimistic: Despite adamant Democratic opposition, they were still able to muscle the nomination through committee with an 11-10 vote and send it to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.
Flake had announced Friday morning that he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, less than 24 hours after a remarkable public hearing with a woman accusing him of sexual assault.
But after nearly an hour of hushed negotiations with Democratic senators in an anteroom to the chamber Friday, Flake, who is retiring at the end of the term, chose a different course. His decision threw the nomination into uncertainty just moments before the panel was set to vote.
“We ought to do what we can to make sure we do all due diligence with a nomination this important,” Flake said when senators returned to the hearing room. “This country is being ripped apart here.”
He said he was seeking an FBI investigation “limited in time and scope to the current allegations that are there.”
Trump said Friday that he had only just heard about what was going on with the Judiciary Committee. He said he found the testimony of the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, credible and “very compelling, and she looks like a very fine woman to me.”
He said he did not have any message for the senators considering the nomination. “They have to do what they think is right and be comfortable with themselves,” he said.
Senators could not immediately reach the FBI director, Christopher Wray, according to a person familiar with their discussions, and spoke Friday afternoon to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, about whether the limited investigation could be done in a week. The White House was lobbying Flake against his call for a delay in the confirmation vote, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Flake is one of the few votes for Kavanaugh still in play, giving him considerable sway over the how the chamber proceeds. But it is ultimately up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to determine when to hold a final confirmation vote.
After days of pleading for an FBI investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct raised by Blasey and two other women, Democrats were thrilled with the deal.
Other Republicans on the panel have lined up in support of Kavanaugh as he denied the accusations, particularly after hearing tearful and compelling accounts from Kavanaugh and Blasey. Democrats have accused Republicans of a cover-up.
Just after Flake’s statement saying he would vote yes, several activists cornered him at an elevator as he was on his way to the committee meeting.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” one of them said. “You are telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t, and that you’re going to let people who do these things into power. That’s what you’re telling me when you vote for him. Don’t look away from me.”
Flake stood largely mute, his gaze mainly to the ground, as the women held open the elevator and made their case.