Senators vote 51-49 to push Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh past procedural hurdle, final weekend vote likely
WASHINGTON (AP) — A deeply divided Senate pushed Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination past a key procedural hurdle Friday, setting up a likely final showdown this weekend in a battle that's seen claims of long-ago sexual assault by the nominee threaten President Donald Trump's effort to tip the court rightward for decades.
The Senate voted 51-49 to limit debate, effectively defeating Democratic efforts to scuttle the nomination with endless delays. With Republicans clinging to a two-vote majority, one Republican voted to stop the nomination, one Democrat to send it further.
Of the four lawmakers who had not revealed their decisions until Friday, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona voted yes, as did Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted not to send the nomination to the full Senate.
Lawmakers might vote differently on the climactic confirmation roll call, and Collins told reporters that she wouldn't rule out doing so. That left unclear whether Friday's tally signaled that the 53-year-old federal appellate judge was on his way to the nation's highest court. Confirmation would be a crowning achievement for Trump, his conservative base and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The vote occurred a day after the Senate received a roughly 50-page FBI report on the sexual assault allegations, which Trump ordered only after wavering GOP senators forced him to do so.
Republicans said the secret document — which described interviews agents conducted with 10 witnesses — failed to find anyone who could corroborate allegations by his two chief accusers, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez. Democrats belittled the bureau's findings, saying agents constrained by the White House hadn't reached out to numerous other people with potentially important information.
The vote also occurred against a backdrop of smoldering resentment by partisans on both sides. That fury was reflected openly by thousands of boisterous anti-Kavanaugh demonstrators who bounced around the Capitol complex for days, confronting senators in office buildings and even reportedly near their homes.
On the Senate floor, lawmakers' comments underscored the lingering bitterness.
"What left wing groups and their Democratic allies have done to Judge Kavanaugh is nothing short of monstrous," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said on the chamber's floor before the vote. He accused Democrats of using destructive, unwarranted personal attacks on the nominee and even encouraging the protesters, saying, "They have encouraged mob rule."
Dianne Feinstein of California, that committee's top Democrat, said Kavanaugh's testimony at last week's dramatic Judiciary panel hearing should "worry us all," citing "a hostility and belligerence that is unbecoming" of a Supreme Court nominee.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the fight "a sorry epilogue to the brazen theft of Justice Scalia's seat." That reflected Democrats' lasting umbrage over Republicans' 2016 refusal to even consider Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia.
When Trump nominated Kavanaugh in July, Democrats leapt to oppose him, saying that past statements and opinions showed he'd be a threat to the Roe v. Wade case that assured the right to abortion. They said he also seemed ready to knock down President Barack Obama's health care law and to rule for Trump if federal authorities probing his 2016 campaign's connections to Russia initiate legal action.
But that evolved into a late-summer spectacle after Ford accused Kavanaugh of trying to rape her at an alcohol-infused high school gathering in 1982, when both were teenagers. Two other women also emerged and accused him of other incidents of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh has denied all the charges.
Under pressure from wavering Republicans, GOP leaders agreed to an extraordinary Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week that mesmerized the nation as Ford nervously recounted her story and said she was "100 percent" certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker.
A fuming Kavanaugh strode into the same packed hearing room that afternoon and said he, too, was "100 percent" certain the incident had not occurred. He angrily accused Democrats of a "search and destroy" mission, fueled by their hatred of Trump.
AP reporters Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly, Padmananda Rama, and Kenneth Thomas contributed.
The Senate is set to take a procedural vote at 10:30 a.m. ET Friday to end debate on the nomination. If a simple majority of the upper chamber votes in favor, the Senate will be able to advance to a final confirmation vote as early as Saturday. If the vote fails, it would deal a major blow to the nomination and throw the possibility of confirmation into serious doubt.
Republicans woke up on Friday without the necessary 50 votes to push ahead on Kavanaugh's nomination, people with direct knowledge of the situation tell CNN, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his deputies were optimistic that they'd get there by the time of the vote.
Injecting even more uncertainty into the process is the fact that Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana will not be in attendance if there is a Saturday vote because he will be walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
Adding another potential issue into the timing, the Senate was previously scheduled to be out on Monday for Columbus Day.
Republicans can only lose a single GOP vote if all Democrats vote against the nomination.
If at least 50 senators vote to move forward with the nomination on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence can step in to break a tie, and the Senate can proceed to a final vote on Saturday.
Daines made clear he wouldn't be in attendance if there was a Saturday vote to GOP leaders earlier this week, a source says. The leadership will gauge how to handle it based on Friday's cloture vote.
If they have enough votes to move ahead with the nomination on Friday and have 50 without Daines on Saturday, they'll hold the vote. If they don't, it will be delayed.
Daines said on Thursday that GOP leaders may be forced to hold open the confirmation vote overnight as he returns to Washington from his home state of Montana where his daughter is being married Saturday.
"I'd come back after the wedding," he told CNN. "It will probably be early morning," Daines said, suggesting he wouldn't get back until sometime early morning Sunday. "We're taking it a day at a time to see what happens."
Senate Republicans projected optimism on Thursday after reviewing the results of an FBI investigation into allegations against the nominee that they say indicate there is no corroboration for accusations he has faced.
"I'll be proud to vote to advance this nomination tomorrow," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday.
Democrats have protested the way Republicans have handled the nomination and the FBI's inquiry, arguing that the parameters of the probe were inappropriately constrained.
But in a possible indication that Kavanaugh's chances of winning confirmation rose after the release of the FBI investigation, two key GOP senators -- Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona -- who have not yet said how they plan to vote, said on Thursday that they considered the FBI findings to be thorough.
The investigation took place after Flake requested it following testimony from Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a social gathering during their high school years in the early 1980's. Kavanaugh, in his own testimony, denied the allegation and argued that partisans were waging a smear campaign against him.
The fate of the nomination is now in the hands of Flake and Collins as well as undecided Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
One closely-watched potential Democratic swing vote -- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- came out against the nomination on Thursday, and referenced Ford's testimony in explaining her decision.
"Countless North Dakotans and others close to me have since reached out and told me their stories of being raped or sexually assaulted -- and expressed the same anguish and fear. I'm in awe of their courage, too," she said in a statement.
A final vote can succeed if Senate Republicans reach the same simple majority threshold. The GOP invoked the so-called "nuclear option" to change Senate rules last year and lower the vote requirement from the standard 60-vote threshold.
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