WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh gained the support of a key Republican senator today, virtually ensuring his nomination will advance to the full Senate a day after he adamantly denied the high-school-years sexual assault of a woman who testified she was “100 percent” he was guilty.
The vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee was set for early this afternoon, Republican committee chairman Chuck Grassley announced as the panel gaveled to order. Emotions running high, several Democratic senators walked out for a time in protest.
Moments before the panel convened, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the committee, announced he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. He said the judge was entitled to the “presumption of innocence … absent corroborating evidence.”
“While some may argue that a different standard should apply regarding the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities, I believe that the Constitution’s provisions of fairness and due process apply here as well,” Flake said. “I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”
The maneuvering followed an emotional day of testimony from both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford that exposed divisions over justice, fairness and who should be believed. Coming weeks before the midterm elections, it ensured the debate would play into the fight for control of Congress.
As lawmakers wrangled over process, protesters swarmed Capitol Hill. Two women cornered Flake in an elevator and, through tears, implored him to change his mind.
Attention turned to a handful of undecided moderates in both parties, most notably Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republicans who have been willing to buck party leaders before. Neither has said whether she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
Democrats running in tough re-election races this fall also faced pressure over their decisions. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who is faces a difficult contest in a swing state, announced he was voting against Kavanaugh, as did Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is seeking re-election in a state President Donald Trump won handily in 2016.
“The allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh are disturbing and credible,” Donnelly said in a statement. “In the interest of getting as much information as possible, I believe the allegations should be investigated by the FBI.”
Democrats are also pushing to subpoena Mark Judge, a high school friend of Kavanaugh who Ford testified was a witness to the alleged assault.
Judge has said he does not recall the incident, and a Democratic motion to subpoena him was blocked by Republicans in a vote. Several Democrats, including Kamala Harris of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, walked out of the hearing room.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said it was as if Judge had “effectively nailed a do not disturb sign, and apparently the Republicans on this committee are satisfied.”
Leahy said it’s not that Democrats are trying to delay the nomination ahead of the congressional elections as Republicans contend. “This is about doing our job,” he said.
Meanwhile, there were signs that Thursday’s remarkable testimony before the panel — in which Kavanaugh angrily declared his innocence and Ford recounted the moment in which she says he attacked her — had registered negatively with two organizations whose support Kavanaugh had earlier received.
The American Bar Association, which previously gave Kavanaugh its highest rating of “well qualified,” asked the Senate committee and the full Senate to delay their votes until the FBI could do a full background check on the assault claims — something President Donald Trump has refused to order. Grassley, too, has refused.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed that today, telling reporters that Kavanaugh has already “been through six separate background investigations by the FBI.”
Late Thursday, the magazine of the Jesuit religious order in the United States withdrew its endorsement of Kavanaugh, saying the nomination was no longer in the interests of the country and “should be withdrawn.”
“If Senate Republicans proceed with his nomination, they will be prioritizing policy aims over a woman’s report of an assault,” the editors wrote. “Were he to be confirmed without this allegation being firmly disproved, it would hang over his future decisions on the Supreme Court for decades and further divide the country.”
Kavanaugh has repeatedly cited his Roman Catholic faith and his years as a student at the Jesuit-run Georgetown Prep school in Maryland.
Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush has been advocating for Kavanaugh with wavering senators in recent days, according to a person familiar with Bush’s outreach who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The White House said it was also engaging with wavering GOP senators, but provided few details.
Flake’s decision has been among the most watched, and he had told reporters it was “a tough call” as he left the Capitol late Thursday.
The Arizonan had been holed up with other key senators — Collins, Murkowski and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia — after the daylong hearing in Collins’ hide-away office on the third floor in the Capitol.
At the private meeting of GOP senators late Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led a round of applause for Grassley as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham after the South Carolina senator’s dramatic defense of Kavanaugh at the hearing.
But Collins raised questions, including her interest in hearing testimony from Judge, according to a GOP aide familiar with the session but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity.
To satisfy her, the committee released a letter from Judge reiterating late Thursday that he did not recall the incident and explaining that as a “recovering alcoholic and a cancer survivor” he has “struggled with depression and anxiety” and avoids public speaking. It was unclear if that resolved Collins’ interest in asking him to appear.
Thursday’s testimony appeared to have only sharpened the partisan divide over Trump’s nominee. Republicans praised Ford’s bravery in coming forward, but many of them said her account won’t affect their support for Kavanaugh.
At the daylong session, Ford and Kavanaugh both said the event and the public controversy that has erupted 36 years later had altered their lives forever and for the worse — perhaps the only thing they agreed on.
Telling her story in person for the first time, Ford, a California psychology professor, quietly told the nation and the Senate Judiciary Committee her long-held secret of the alleged assault in locked room at a gathering of friends when she was just 15. The memory — and Kavanaugh’s laughter during the act — was “locked” in her brain, she said: “100 percent.” Hours later, Kavanaugh angrily denied it, alternating a loud, defiant tone with near tears as he addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“You have replaced ‘advice and consent’ with ‘search and destroy,’” he said, referring to the Constitution’s charge to senators’ duties in confirming high officials. Trump’s tweet later used the same “search and destroy” language.
Repeatedly Democrats asked Kavanaugh to call for an FBI investigation into the claims. He did not.
“I welcome whatever the committee wants to do,” he said.
Republicans are reluctant for several reasons, including the likelihood that further investigations could push a vote past the November elections that may switch Senate control back to the Democrats and make consideration of any Trump nominee more difficult.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick, Juliet Linderman, Padmananda Rama, Matthew Daly and AP photographers J. Scott Applewhite and Carolyn Kaster contributed.