The United States Senate has voted to advance Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual misconduct that further inflamed a bitter partisan fight about the judge — but a handful of senators could still derail his confirmation.
- Senators backed Brett Kavanaugh by 51 to 49
- Donald Trump praised the result, saying he was “very proud”
- A handful of wavering senators hold the key to Mr Kavanaugh’s future
Senators backed President Donald Trump’s nominee Mr Kavanaugh by 51 to 49 in a procedural vote that moved the Republican-controlled Senate toward a definitive decision that is set for Saturday (US time).
Confirming Mr Kavanaugh to the lifetime post would hand Mr Trump a clear victory and tip the balance on the court to a 5-4 majority in favour of conservatives in possible legal battles over contentious issues such as abortion rights, immigration, and Mr Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the US military.
The weeks-long drama over Mr Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, has gripped the country and could still take more twists.
It depends on the thinking of a few wavering senators in a chamber where Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a razor-thin majority.
In the pivotal moment on Friday, Susan Collins, perhaps the chamber’s most moderate Republican, proclaimed her support for Mr Kavanaugh at the end of a Senate floor speech that lasted nearly 45 minutes.
While she was among a handful of Republicans who helped sink Mr Trump’s quest to obliterate former president Barack Obama’s healthcare law last year, this time she proved instrumental in delivering a triumph to Mr Trump.
Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting “YES” to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh
Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a fellow moderate and friend of Senator Collins, became the only Republican to say she opposed Mr Kavanaugh. She said on the Senate floor that Mr Kavanaugh was “a good man” but his “appearance of impropriety has become unavoidable.”
She added that with Supreme Court appointments lasting a lifetime, “Those who seek these seats must meet the highest standards in all respects, at all times. And that is hard.”
In a twist, Ms Murkowski said she would state her opposition but vote “present” as a courtesy to Kavanaugh supporter Republican Senator Steve Daines, who was attending his daughter’s wedding in Montana.
“This has truly been the most difficult … decision that I’ve ever had to make,” she said before the vote.
“I believe he’s a good man. It just may be that in my view, he’s not the right man for the court at this time.”
Battle not over yet
Senator Jeff Flake, one of the few Republicans who had expressed doubts about Mr Kavanaugh, said he would back the judge unless something big changed, MSNBC reported.
A lone Democrat, Joe Manchin, voted in favour of advancing the process on Friday morning, but had not yet stated his position on the final vote.
The Kavanaugh fight has riveted Americans just weeks before November 6 midterm elections in which Democrats are trying to take control of Congress from the Republicans.
Dr Ford was one of three women who accused the judge of sexual assault in the 1980s. (ABC News: AP/Andrew Harnik)
What was already a sharply partisan battle became an intense political drama when university Professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Mr Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school in Maryland in 1982.
Two other women also made accusations of sexual misconduct by Mr Kavanaugh in the 1980s.
He denied the allegations.
Mr Trump, who has made appointing conservative judges a major plank of his presidency, tweeted his approval for the Senate vote, saying he was “very proud”.
Further complicating matters for the Republican leadership, Senator Steve Daines was set to be at his daughter’s wedding on Saturday and has said he will not miss the ceremony.
That could require holding the vote open to give Mr Daines time to return to Washington from Montana.
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, meaning that if all Senate Democrats oppose Mr Kavanaugh, Mr Trump cannot afford to lose more than one Republican vote for his nominee, with Vice-President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.
Mr Trump mocked Dr Ford on Tuesday during a political rally in Mississippi, further angering Democrats and women campaigning for an end to sexual violence.
Democrats denounced an the FBI report sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee as a whitewash and said the White House placed constraints on the FBI, which did not speak to many potential witnesses.
While the documents have not been made public, Republicans said they did not back up sexual assault allegations by Dr Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California.