By ALAN FRAM and LISA MASCARO , Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Brett Kavanaugh seems assured of surviving a Supreme Court nomination fight for the ages after two wavering senators said they’d back him despite weeks of shocking accusations, hardball politics and rowdy Capitol protests.
Announcements by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia that they’ll support the conservative jurist made Saturday’s confirmation vote a formality, an anticlimactic finale to a battle that riveted the nation for nearly a month.
While Democrats’ defeat was all but certain, the Senate remained in session overnight, though the chamber was mostly empty. The roll call seemed destined to be nearly party-line, with just a single defector from each side capping a contest fought against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and President Donald Trump’s unyielding support of his nominee.
Kavanaugh’s opponents raised concerns that he’d push the court further right, including possible sympathetic rulings for Trump. But for the past few weeks, the battle was dominated by allegations that he sexually abused women decades ago — accusations he emphatically denied.
“Millions of Americans, millions of women are watching us today,” said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the Democrats who take to the Senate floor early Saturday to rail against Kavanaugh. “They’re waiting to see whether or not, when a woman comes forward and says that she is a survivor of sexual assault, does this chamber, do the individuals here take her seriously?”
A day earlier, Collins had told fellow senators that Christine Blasey Ford’s dramatic testimony last month describing Kavanaugh’s alleged 1982 assault was “sincere, painful and compelling.” But Collins said the FBI had found no corroborating evidence from witnesses whose names Ford had provided.
“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. “We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”
Those passions were on full display in a fight that could energize both parties’ voters in elections for control of Congress just five weeks away.
The showdown drew raucous demonstrators, largely anti-Kavanaugh, to the Capitol, where they raised tensions by confronting lawmakers despite an intensified police presence. Another 101 protesters were arrested Friday, the U.S. Capitol Police said.
Collins, perhaps the chamber’s most moderate Republican, proclaimed her support for Kavanaugh at the end of a floor speech that lasted nearly 45 minutes. While she was among a handful of Republicans who helped sink Trump’s quest to obliterate President Barack Obama’s health care law last year, this time she proved instrumental in delivering a triumph to Trump.
Manchin, the only remaining undeclared lawmaker, used an emailed statement to announce his support for Kavanaugh moments after Collins finished talking. Manchin, the only Democrat supporting the nominee, faces a competitive re-election race next month in a state Trump carried in 2016 by 42 percentage points.
“My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual assault in their life,” Manchin said. But he added that based on the FBI report, “I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him.”
Protesters chanted “Shame” at Manchin later when he talked to reporters outside his office.
Republicans control the Senate by a meager 51-49 margin. Support from Collins and Manchin would give Kavanaugh at least 51 votes, assuming no one else changes their stance.
Three female GOP senators — Iowa’s Jodi Ernst, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith — sat directly behind Collins as she spoke. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sat directly in front of Collins and pivoted his seat around to face her. A few Democrats sat stone-faced nearby.
When she finished, Collins received applause from the roughly two dozen GOP senators present.
Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a fellow moderate and a friend of Collins, became the only Republican to say she opposed Kavanaugh. She said on the Senate floor Friday evening that Kavanaugh is “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, Murkowski said she will state her opposition but vote “present” as a courtesy to Kavanaugh supporter Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is attending his daughter’s wedding in Montana. Murkowski said she’d use an obscure procedure that lets one senator offset the absence of another without affecting the outcome. That would let Kavanaugh win by the same two-vote margin he’d have received had both senators voted.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has repeatedly battled Trump and will retire in January, said he’d vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation “unless something big changes.”
Vice President Mike Pence planned to be available Saturday in case his tie-breaking vote was needed, which now seems unlikely.
In a procedural vote Friday that handed Republicans an initial victory, senators voted 51-49 to limit debate, defeating Democratic efforts to scuttle the nomination with endless delays.
That vote occurred amid smoldering resentment by partisans on both sides, on and off the Senate floor.
“What left wing groups and their Democratic allies have done to Judge Kavanaugh is nothing short of monstrous,” the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, said before the vote.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the fight “a sorry epilogue to the brazen theft of Justice Scalia’s seat.” That reflected Democrats’ lasting umbrage over Republicans’ 2016 refusal to even consider Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia.
When Trump nominated Kavanaugh in July, Democrats leapt to oppose him, saying that past statements and opinions showed he’d be a threat to the Roe v. Wade case that assured the right to abortion. They said he also seemed ready to rule for Trump if federal authorities probing his 2016 campaign’s connections to Russia try to pursue him in court.
Yet Kavanaugh’s pathway to confirmation seemed unfettered until Ford accused him of drunkenly sexually assaulting her in a locked bedroom at a 1982 high school gathering. Two other women later emerged with sexual misconduct allegations from the 1980s.
Democrats also challenged Kavanaugh’s honesty, temperament and ability to be nonpartisan after he fumed at last week’s Judiciary hearing that Democrats had launched a “search and destroy mission” against him fueled by their hatred of Trump.
Kavanaugh would replace the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a swing vote on issues including abortion, campaign finance and same-sex marriage.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly, Padmananda Rama, Ken Thomas and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.