WASHINGTON — Judge Brett Kavanaugh is headed to the Supreme Court after three pivotal senators on Friday announced they would vote to confirm him despite accusations of decades-old sexual misconduct.
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) effectively put Kavanaugh onto the court when she pledged the final vote needed for confirmation in a late afternoon speech. It ended the most bitter fight over a high court nomination in nearly three decades, a brawl that exposed the country's deep political divisions.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) quickly announced he too would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, securing the 51st vote for President Trump's nominee. Earlier, Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) had joined the ranks of the judge's supporters.
Collins, a moderate whom Democrats had hoped to persuade, questioned the fairness of rejecting Kavanaugh based on unverified accusations.
"In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be," she said on the Senate floor as three fellow Republican women sat behind her and a handful of other GOP senators watched intently. "We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy."
A final vote on Kavanaugh is set for Saturday afternoon after the Senate voted to end debate Friday morning, a required procedural step. His ascent would complete a long drive to establish a reliable conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and will serve as one of Trump's most lasting and powerful legacies.
The vote Friday came after a wrenching national debate that saw Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault and misconduct by three women — charges he angrily denied. Trump later mocked the judge's chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and warned of dangers for men who face uncorroborated accusations. It all played out against the charged backdrop of the #MeToo movement, which has pushed for women to come forward and for their claims to be treated seriously.
In her summation, Collins also dismissed concerns that Kavanaugh would rule in ways that would dismantle existing abortion laws or legal protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. A close reading of his opinions and scholarship reveal a respect for precedent, Collins said.
And she cited the fierce opposition to Kavanaugh as part of the problem with the current partisan nature of the confirmation process, referring to an unnamed senator who declared a "no" vote before the nomination was announced — likely a reference to Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who did just that.
When she finished speaking, GOP leaders stood and applauded.
Manchin, who faces a difficult reelection campaign next month in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, said in a statement that he found Kavanaugh "to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him. I do hope that Judge Kavanaugh will not allow the partisan nature this process took to follow him onto the court."
The outcome came after weeks of rancor that left the Capitol on edge, with lawmakers tired and angry, staffers facing threats from callers, throngs of protesters chanting in the halls, and an unusually heavy police presence. Senators in both parties saw the confirmation fight as a new low in the acrid battles over the judiciary, though each party blamed the other.
"It is not a good thing for the Supreme Court and the Senate for there to be a confirmation that is so contentious and that is confirmed so narrowly," said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.).
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) was the only Republican to vote against the procedural step. She told reporters that Kavanaugh is "a good man" but not right for the court in these times.
"I believe we are dealing with issues right now that are bigger than a nominee, and how to ensure our institutions — not only the legislative branch but our judicial branch — continue to be respected," she said.
Like the 1991 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which came amid accusations of sexual harassment, this cultural moment could resonate for years to come. Political reverberations could arrive quickly, with midterm elections just weeks away.
Democrats, led by many female candidates and activists, had already vowed to show Republicans their fury in November, and the confirmation seems likely to further fuel their cause. They continue to seethe over the fact that Republicans were in this position because they refused to even hold a hearing in 2016 for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, leaving open a seat that Trump filled with the conservative Neil Gorsuch.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats' Senate leader, hoped future Americans will "look back on this chapter as the shameful culmination of the scorched-earth politics practiced by the hard right in America – people who will stop at nothing to entrench an advantage on our nation's courts."
For their part, Republicans have reported a surge in voter enthusiasm as many in the GOP have fumed over what they see as unfair attacks on Kavanaugh.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said "the mob" of protesters and the media had unleashed an unproven "mudslide" to stop Kavanaugh.
"There is absolutely no corroborating evidence for these allegations. … If there were, you bet we'd have heard about it. But there isn't," he said on the Senate floor. "We have the opportunity to advance the nomination of an incredibly well-qualified and well-respected jurist to a post that demands such excellence."
Kavanaugh would replace the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a frequent swing vote, giving conservatives a majority bloc that could determine the outcome of cases touching nearly every aspect of American life — from abortion to workers' rights to campaign finance and beyond.
He and Gorsuch are both in their early 50s and could serve for decades.
Democrats accused Republicans of brushing off accusations by Ford, who said that more than 30 years ago, a drunken Kavanaugh pressed her onto a bed, ground himself against her, attempted to remove her clothes, and covered her mouth when she screamed. They were both in high school in Maryland at the time.
Ford described the accusation in a nationally watched hearing, one that brought an outpouring from women who revealed their own experiences of being sexually assaulted or harassed.