WASHINGTON — Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared destined for final confirmation to the Supreme Court after two key undecided senators — Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., announced Friday that they would support his elevation to the high court after the most divisive confirmation fight in decades.
Collins’ lengthy speech on the Senate floor dwelled as much on Kavanaugh’s judicial record as on the sexual misconduct charges that have consumed his nomination. She did conclude, “We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence.”
“The Me Too movement is real. It matters. It is needed and it is long overdue,” she said, arguing that her support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation does not negate the claims of sexual assault that have flooded forward in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the nominee. But she said she was not convinced of Kavanaugh’s guilt.
“I found her testimony to be sincere, painful and compelling. I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life. Nevertheless, the four witnesses she named could not corroborate any of the events,” Collins said.
Manchin immediately followed with a statement proclaiming his support.
Those decisions came after a dramatic 51-49 procedural vote to limit debate on the nomination — the next-to-last step in the tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation process. A final confirmation vote could come as early as Saturday.
With the Senate and the nation bitterly divided, Kavanaugh’s future came to rest with four undecided senators: three Republicans — Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Collins — and one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But one by one, they let their positions be known.
Flake said Friday that he would vote for Kavanaugh “unless something big changes.” Murkowski broke with her party in voting to block his confirmation, and later delivered an emotional impromptu speech explaining why she had voted against ending debate.
“I believe we’re dealing with issues right now that are bigger than the nominee and how we ensure fairness and how our legislative and judicial branch can continue to be respected,” she said, choosing her words carefully, her voice filled with emotion.
“This is what I have been wrestling with, and so I made the — took the very difficult vote that I did,” she said. “I believe Brett Kavanaugh’s a good man. It just may be that in my view he’s not the right man for the court at this time.”
For Kavanaugh, and the country, the stakes are huge: If confirmed, President Donald Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee will replace the high court’s swing vote — as cast by retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — with a committed conservative, shifting the ideological balance on the court toward the right for generations.
The last time a justice was confirmed by a single vote was in 1881, when Stanley Matthews was confirmed 24-23.
Trump was triumphant on Twitter. “Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting ‘YES’ to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!” he wrote.
Friday’s vote ushers in 30 hours of debate before the Senate takes its final vote on Kavanaugh. It came as senators were still absorbing the results of a confidential FBI inquiry into allegations of sexual assault against the judge — claims that have torn apart the Senate and divided the nation.
In divergent and often bitter remarks before the Friday morning vote, senior senators delivered closing arguments that demonstrated how deeply the nomination has split the Senate.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Judiciary Committee chairman, accused Democrats of waging a scorched-earth campaign to destroy Kavanaugh — “the most qualified nominee in our nation’s history” — before he could be confirmed.
He said that the burden of proof for the nominee’s accusers had not been met and that an ample investigation had found no evidence to corroborate their claims.
“We had a campaign of distraction from his outstanding qualifications, a campaign of destruction of this individual,” Grassley said. “What we have learned is the resistance that has existed since the day after the November 2016 election is centered right here on Capitol Hill. They have encouraged mob rule.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, mocked Democrats and warned that a vote against Kavanaugh based on uncorroborated accusations would dangerously erode “the ideals of justice that have served our nation so well for so long.”
And Trump urged on the Senate, saying the protesters were “screamers” and “professionals” paid by financier George Soros, a well-worn trope of the far right.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Kavanaugh had disqualified himself many times over because of his views on presidential power, gun rights and abortion rights. She chastised Republicans for an incomplete investigation of the sexual misconduct claims against him and said Kavanaugh’s emotional defense at a public hearing last week demonstrated a temperament unfit for the office.
“Based on all the factors we have before us, I do not believe Judge Kavanaugh has earned this seat,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans appeared to agree, at least superficially, on one thing: The behavior of senators has been unbecoming.
“When future Americans look back at these proceedings, let them draw no lessons from the Senate’s conduct here,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader.
Playing out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, in the middle of a contentious midterm election, the confirmation fight over Kavanaugh has energized liberals and conservatives around the country.
Trump has been using it to rev up his supporters; at rally in Minnesota this week, thousands of the president’s backers chanted “Vote him in! Vote him in!” Hundreds of anti-Kavanaugh protesters, many of them women, have descended on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, toting Kava-Nope signs and confronting Republican senators.
Just weeks ago, Kavanaugh, 53, seemed a shoo-in for confirmation.
From the outset, Democrats have tried to portray him as a partisan, harking back to his work on the investigation that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, and his time as a White House lawyer for former President George W. Bush. They warned that Kavanaugh would be a threat to women’s rights, and would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that created a constitutional right to abortion.
He did well as his initial confirmation hearings, avoiding any pitfalls during two long days of grueling questions.
But when Blasey, a research psychologist in Northern California, publicly accused Kavanaugh of trying to rape her when they were teenagers, his nomination suddenly seemed on the verge of falling apart. Kavanaugh vigorously denied the allegations.
As other women came forward with new accusations, Kavanaugh and Blasey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a riveting scene that evoked strong memories of another contentious Supreme Court fight — the 1991 nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by the law professor Anita Hill.
Blasey became a household name and a new symbol of the #MeToo movement. Kavanaugh’s high school and college past, including a history of heavy drinking, was exposed and his raw, emotional testimony — including barbed comments to his Democratic questioners — raised questions about his honesty and his temperament.
Kavanaugh responded Thursday night, on the eve of Friday’s vote, with an extraordinary opinion article in The Wall Street Journal. In it, he tried to reassure undecided senators that he possessed a proper judicial temperament, attributing his delivery to his “overwhelming frustration at being wrongly accused.”
Republicans hailed the FBI results as favorable to Kavanaugh, saying that none of nine witnesses interviewed corroborated stories from two women, Blasey and Deborah Ramirez, whose accusations were investigated. Democrats branded the investigation as a whitewash, saying that the FBI failed to pursue leads and interview witnesses who had relevant information.