WASHINGTON — Judge Brett Kavanaugh cleared a major hurdle Friday morning in his quest for the Supreme Court, as the Senate voted narrowly to cut off debate on his nomination and move to a final vote as early as Saturday, but one Republican senator left open the possibility that she could still vote no.
The 51-49 vote is the next-to-last step in the most tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation process in decades. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said her vote to move the confirmation forward did not signal how she will vote in the end. Instead, she will announce her position on Kavanaugh at 3 p.m. Friday. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also voted yes, freeing Vice President Mike Pence from a tiebreaking vote on the nomination after Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted no.
It was unclear whether the votes of Sen. Jeff Flake and Manchin reflected their final position.
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, retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, with a committed conservative, shifting the ideological balance on the court toward the right for generations.
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 Kavanaugh, allegations that have torn apart the Senate and divided the nation.
In divergent and often bitter remarks before the vote, senior senators delivered closing arguments Friday morning 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 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 the financier, George Soros, a well-worn trope of the far right.
After the vote, he praised lawmakers on Twitter. “Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting ‘YES’ to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the 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.
On one thing, Democrats and Republicans appeared to agree, at least superficially. 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 fight over the Kavanaugh nomination 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 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 in the George W. Bush White House. They warned that he 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. But he did well as his initial confirmation hearings, avoiding any pitfalls during two long days of grueling questions.
But when Christine Blasey Ford, 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 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.
He 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.”
Democrats 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 in the George W. Bush White House. His warned that he 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.
Republicans hailed the FBI results as favorable to Kavanaugh, saying that none of nine witnesses interviewed corroborated stories from two women, Christine Blasey Ford 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.
Trump prepared senators for the vote, exhorting them to ignore the protesters that have swarmed the Senate. He called them “paid professionals” and intimated that they are paid by George Soros, a liberal financier who has long starred in the conspiracy theories of the far right.