Judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose Supreme Court hearings ripped apart the Senate and roiled the nation, headed for final confirmation to the court after two key undecided senators announced they would back him, despite allegations of sexual assault and deep-seated Democratic opposition.
The last-minute announcements by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, capped an emotional and deeply divisive confirmation process that, in the end, turned as much on questions about Judge Kavanaugh’s honesty, temperament and treatment of women as it did on his jurisprudence. A final vote is expected late Saturday afternoon.
Judge Kavanaugh’s ascent to the nation’s highest court is a huge victory for President Trump, Senate Republicans and their conservative allies, who have mounted a decades-long campaign to remake the Supreme Court in their image. He will replace the court’s swing vote, the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, with a committed conservative who is likely to push the court to the right for decades.
But his path there has been a brutal one, leaving in its wake a nation caught in what Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, described on Friday as the “crosswinds of anger and fear and partisanship.”
While conservatives savored victory, many women and survivors of sexual assault were left feeling that once again, their stories did not matter, that nothing had changed since 1991, when Judge Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court after being accused of sexual harassment by the law professor Anita F. Hill. Then, as now, women were energized to become a political force.
Then, as now, conservatives railed against the politics of personal destruction that, they said, had ruined a good man’s name.
All of those emotions collided in the Capitol on Friday, during a dramatic day that culminated with Ms. Collins announcing her intentions in a highly anticipated afternoon speech on the Senate floor.
The Kavanaugh debate has been especially agonizing for her; she has been dogged by protesters and received threats for months, and has lately been traveling with police escorts.
Activists shouted at Ms Collins from the Senate gallery — “Vote no! Support Maine women!” — as she stood in the chamber to speak. She argued that her support for Judge Kavanaugh did not negate the claims of sexual assault that have flooded forward in the wake of testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, the Northern California research psychologist who accused the nominee of trying to rape her when they were teenagers.
“The Me Too movement is real. It matters. It is needed, and it is long overdue,” Ms. Collins said. She added that although she found Dr. Blasey’s testimony to be “sincere, painful and compelling,” witnesses provided no corroborating evidence.
“Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them,” Ms. Collins said, adding, “We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness.”
When she finished, her relieved Republican colleagues rose to give her a standing ovation. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hugged her and burst into tears. Moments later, Mr. Manchin, who is facing a tough re-election battle at home and was widely believed to be following Ms. Collins’s lead, announced that he too would be a yes vote.
“I have reservations about this vote given the serious accusations against Judge Kavanaugh and the temperament he displayed in the hearing,” Mr. Manchin said in a statement.
“And my heart goes out to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual assault in their life. However, based on all of the information I have available to me, including the recently completed F.B.I. report, I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist.”
Their announcements followed a 51-to-49 morning procedural vote to limit debate and move forward with the nomination — the next-to-last step in the confirmation process — that had its own drama and surprises.
Supreme Court confirmation votes are always a formal affair; unlike ordinary votes, where senators mill about the chamber, during Supreme Court votes they sit at their wooden desks and rise as their names are called. On Friday, all eyes were on the four undecided senators who would determine Judge Kavanaugh’s fate: Ms. Collins; Mr. Manchin; Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska; and Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona.
Mr. Flake, whose wavering in the wake of Dr. Blasey’s testimony last week led to an F.B.I. investigation into her accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, voted in favor of moving ahead, telling reporters that he would vote for Judge Kavanaugh “unless something big changes.”
But Ms. Murkowski, her voice rising barely above a whisper as she announced her vote, became the lone Republican to break with her party in voting to block the judge’s confirmation.
She later delivered an emotional impromptu speech explaining why, but said that she would be recorded as “present” rather than “no” during Saturday’s vote to compensate for a fellow Republican who would have trouble making the vote.
“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.”
The vote gave Republicans enough of a majority that Vice President Mike Pence did not have to come to the Senate to break a tie. The last time a justice was confirmed by a single vote was in 1881, when Stanley Matthews was confirmed 24 to 23.
Trump gloats on Twitter
Friday’s vote ushered in 30 hours of debate before the Senate takes its final vote on Judge Kavanaugh on Saturday. It came as senators were still absorbing the results of the confidential F.B.I. inquiry — an investigation that Republicans said found no evidence to corroborate the claims of Dr. Blasey and others, and that Democrats branded a whitewash.
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.
“We had a campaign of distraction from his outstanding qualifications, a campaign of destruction of this individual,” Mr. 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.”
The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2018
Mr. McConnell mocked Democrats and warned that a vote against Judge Kavanaugh based on uncorroborated accusations would dangerously erode “the ideals of justice that have served our nation so well for so long.”
And Mr. 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.
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,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, “let them draw no lessons from the Senate’s conduct here.”
Playing out against the backdrop of a contentious midterm election, the Kavanaugh debate is bound to have political consequences, especially for vulnerable Democrats, like Mr. Manchin, running in states won by Mr. Trump. Two others — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — have said they will vote against confirmation, potentially risky votes.
But the repercussions could go beyond November. Representative Chellie Pingree, Democrat of Maine, dropped hints on Friday that she could challenge Ms. Collins in 2020, as did Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s former national security adviser.
From the moment Mr. Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh in July, it was clear that the fight over the judge, who serves on the federal appeals court in Washington, would be intensely partisan. He came up in Washington through Republican politics, working on the investigation that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton and later in the George W. Bush White House. Mr. Schumer vowed to oppose him “with everything I’ve got.”
Democrats warned that Judge 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. They spotlighted his expansive rulings in favor of gun rights, and his broad interpretation of executive power — a view that they found troublesome in light of the continuing investigations involving Mr. Trump.
Republicans spotlighted his impeccable résumé — undergraduate and law degrees from Yale — and painted him as a pillar of the community, a devoted father and coach for his girls’ basketball teams who attended church every Sunday and served meals to the homeless as a volunteer for Catholic Charities. He did well at his initial confirmation hearings, avoiding any pitfalls during two long days of grueling questions, and appeared destined for confirmation.
But last month when Dr. Blasey publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her, his nomination suddenly seemed on the verge of falling apart. As other women came forward with new accusations, Judge Kavanaugh — who vigorously denied all of the allegations — and Dr. Blasey testified before the Judiciary Committee in a riveting scene that evoked strong memories of the 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings.
Dr. Blasey became a household name and a new symbol of the #MeToo movement. Judge 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 concerns about his honesty and temperament.
Judge 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.”
His confirmation may not end the saga. Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who will lead the House Judiciary Committee if his party takes control next month, said in an interview on Friday that he would immediately open an investigation of Judge Kavanaugh if he gets the gavel.
“It is not something we are eager to do,” Mr. Nadler said, pledging to subpoena F.B.I. documents and interview potential witnesses. “But the Senate having failed to do its proper constitutionally mandated job of advise and consent, we are going to have to do something to provide a check and balance, to protect the rule of law and to protect the legitimacy of one of our most important institutions.”
-New York Times