Embattled federal judge Brett Kavanaugh moved one step closer to becoming the ninth Supreme Court justice and providing a decisive fifth conservative vote Friday when the Senate voted to tee up a final up-or-down vote.
In a vote that broke mostly along party lines after several deeply partisan weeks that culminated with a FBI investigation into sexual misconduct charges against Kavanaugh dating to his high school days, the chamber voted to end debate on his nomination, 51-49.
There were a couple of party defections. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted against cutting off debate, while Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., voted “yes” to cut off debate. The result means the Senate is poised to decide his fate in a high-stakes Saturday vote.
Some senators emphasized that how they voted on cloture was not necessarily indicative of how they would vote on confirmation. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for instance, said she would vote to cut off debate and then announce her position on confirmation at 3 p.m. on Friday.
“We’re all very mindful of the John McCain moment where you vote ‘yes’ on cloture and you vote ‘no’ on cloture, and you vote ‘no’ on passage,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said. “We’re hoping that we might find someone who voted ‘yes’ on cloture that’s willing to vote ‘no.’”
The reference to McCain was to that of the dramatic vote last year on repealing the Affordable Care Act, when the Arizona Republican provided the final “no” vote despite earlier voting to get to the measure.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, delivered a passionate floor speech Friday morning saying “nothing” would have prevented Democrats from instituting “mob rule” by protesters before voting against Kavanaugh.
“For the left-wing, advise and consent has become search and destroy — a demolition derby,” he said. “We should all admire Kavanaugh’s willingness to serve his country despite how he’s been treated.” He dubbed the nominee the “most qualified” high court nominee in American history.
About two hours before the vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republicans released an executive summary of an FBI report of its five-day investigation into two of the allegations. It ended with this line: “The Supplemental Background Investigation confirms what the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded after its investigation: there is no corroboration of the allegations made by Dr. [Christine Blasey Ford] Ford or Ms. [Deborah] Ramirez.”
Democrats, however, said the probe was too limited, questioning why the bureau did not interview Ford or Kavanaugh. They also charged the White House with micromanaging the investigation and limiting its scope to ensure it would not uncover any information that might cause undecided GOP senators to knock down the nomination.
Voting to end debate and voting to hand a controversial nominee a lifetime appointment to the country’s highest court are separate matters. Senators sometimes see no reason to block a final vote, even if they are still on the fence or even opposed to a nominee or piece of legislation.
White House officials acknowledged Thursday they were unsure whether they had the 50 votes needed to clear the procedural hurdle, with Vice President Mike Pence able to, as president of the Senate, provide the decisive 51st.
Pence had not released his schedule for the day before or during the vote. He was slated to fly to New York for three fundraisers. About 20 minutes after the vote, his office released his schedule, which included an 11:25 a.m. departure for the Big Apple.
Still, GOP senators were eager to start voting after the FBI report was delivered early Thursday morning. They have eyed a 5-4 conservative bend on the high court for a decade, and further delays could allow additional allegations to surface or on-the-fence Republicans to have more time to find a political route to no.
“Enough already,” Senate Judiciary member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters Thursday. “Let’s vote.”
As the crucial vote neared, President Donald Trump took to Twitter with what amounted to his closing argument. He appeared to lobby undecided senators by casting two women who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake last week as Democratic-funded “Troublemakers.”
Trump dubbed the women “very rude elevator screamers” and “paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” referring to wealthy liberal donor George Soros. The president appeared to plead with GOP senators to not “”fall for it!” He ended his tweet with this “#Troublemakers”.
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
Minutes after the vote concluded, Trump tweeted that he is “Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting ‘YES’ to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!”
Even before they voted no Friday morning, Democratic senators like Delaware’s Chris Coons, who struck a deal with Flake last week that spawned the FBI probe, said the matter had become bigger than just whether to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
“This conversation is bigger,” he said Thursday on the floor. “This is a question about whether we as a country at the highest levels of power believe victims and survivors of sexual assault and are willing to listen to them, to believe them, and to take action.”
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.