WASHINGTON — Everything was going according to plan, at least for Republicans. It was Friday, the lunch hour, and almost time to vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Given the political division on the committee, there was little doubt that Republicans would advance his nomination to the full Senate. Since they control that chamber, albeit narrowly, they would likely confirm him early next week.
All morning, the senators spoke: Republicans denouncing the smear campaign against Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by several women, and Democrats arguing that Kavanaugh was unfit to serve on the high court. But the speeches were largely for show, and while some made for good tweets, they probably persuaded no one in the room, where opinions were as fixed as the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
The last Democrat to speak was Sen. Cory Booker. Known for his fondness for orotund liberal rhetoric, he launched into a speech that praised committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, while decrying the process that had brought Kavanaugh to the very steps of the Supreme Court. As Booker kept talking, the seats around him emptied until he was the only Democrat left seated.
It is not abnormal for senators to get up in the middle of testimony, but within minutes, it became clear that something extraordinary was afoot. The Democrats were huddled in an anteroom, behind a wall of mirrored glass, where they were joined by some Republicans. Booker finished, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., gave an extended speech of his own. But it was obvious that he was filibustering and that the real action was taking place out of sight.
Senators returned from the anteroom, whispered with aides, checked phones. Democrats smiled. A few Republicans frowned. Reporters whispered. Rumors flew. Tweets offered tantalizing hints of intrigue. And cameras furiously clicked away, trying to capture the scene behind closed doors, in an anteroom where a historic, dramatic negotiation was taking place.
When that negotiation was over, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh found itself imperiled by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who said he would not vote to confirm Kavanaugh in the full Senate unless the FBI investigated the sexual assault allegations against the 53-year-old D.C. circuit court judge.
On Friday afternoon, GOP leaders agreed to delay the vote by one week and ask for a supplemental FBI investigation. According to a statement by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI’s supplemental investigation “would be limited to current credible allegations against the nominee and must be completed no later than one week from today.”
President Trump agreed to the delay. “I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file,” the president said in a statement Friday afternoon. “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
Flake’s change of heart came after having declared earlier Friday that he would support Kavanaugh. Friday’s vote followed dramatic testimony on Thursday by Christine Blasey Ford, a Northern California psychology professor who said Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a house party in suburban Washington 36 years ago. She told the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath that she was certain her assailant was Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh followed Ford, lashing out at Democratic members of the committee, offering forceful denials of sexual misconduct and casting the accusations against him as nothing more than political retribution. While some were alarmed by Kavanaugh’s emotional performance, it seemed to win over all of the committee’s Republicans. President Trump, too, was said to be pleased with the testimony.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate, as was expected. Flake was among the 11 Republicans who voted for the judge. That also was expected. The surprise was the last-minute condition Flake attached to his “yes” vote.
After returning from the anteroom where he’d been huddling for the better part of an hour, Flake — who is retiring from the Senate later this year — addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee. His voice shook as he said the nation was “being ripped apart” by the political and cultural issues that have been brought to the fore by the Kavanaugh nomination, which is Trump’s second pick for the Supreme Court. “I think it would be proper to delay the floor vote for up to, but not more than, one week in order to let the FBI do an investigation limited in time and scope,” he said.
Flake said he would only support such an investigation if it were conducted within a week.
Lisa Murkowski, another moderate Republican, reportedly spoke with Flake about the proposal and supported it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could have brought Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate without the support of Flake and Murkowski, but he would not have had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, since no Democrats have said they will vote for the nominee.
Susan Collins, R-Maine, has not said how she will vote. She has been under intense pressure from liberal activists to vote against Kavanaugh.
Republicans had strongly resisted an FBI investigation into the allegations against the nominee. Kavanaugh also refused to endorse it, most notably when Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked the nominee whether he thought “personally” that an FBI investigation was “the best thing for us to do.” Republicans have charged that an FBI investigation would unearth nothing new about decades-old allegations and that calls for such an inquest are merely a delay tactic by Democrats.
Now, however, they will have no choice. Nor will President Trump, who had been hoping to get the Kavanaugh nomination out of the way as the midterm congressional election nears. Speaking in the Oval Office earlier on Friday, he seemed resigned to an FBI investigation. “I just want it to work out well for the country,” the president said of his controversial nominee. “If that happens, I’m happy.”
Some observers speculated that Flake had been rattled by an encounter with a sexual assault survivor earlier Friday morning as he boarded an elevator in a Senate building. The woman, later identified as Ana Maria Archila, tearfully told Flake, “What you’re doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court. This is not tolerable. You have children in your family. Think about them.”
It is not clear whether the encounter with Archila made Flake rethink his position. But something shook his confidence, and now Brett Kavanaugh’s seemingly certain ascent to the Supreme Court is uncertain once again.
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