WASHINGTON — Democrats and demonstrators vented their rage and resistance, but the Senate rolled toward approving Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination Saturday as President Donald Trump and Republicans approached an election-season triumph in the most electrifying confirmation battle in years.
Capping a venomous struggle that transfixed Americans when it veered into claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted women in the 1980s — claims he fiercely denied — the 53-year-old conservative’s nomination was on track for afternoon approval. He seemed certain to win by a slender two votes in a near party-line roll call, among the narrowest margins ever.
Trump weighed in Saturday morning on behalf of the man he nominated in July and who as justice would tilt the court rightward, possibly for decades. “Big day for America!” he tweeted.
Democrats paraded to a nearly empty Senate chamber overnight and into Saturday to lambaste the nominee. They said he’d push the court further right, including possible sympathetic rulings for Trump himself. And they said his record and fuming testimony at a now-famous Senate Judiciary Committee hearing showed he lacked the fairness, temperament and even honesty to become a justice.
But the fight was defined in recent weeks by sexual assault accusations, especially Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that a drunken Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a 1982 high school gathering. Kavanaugh vehemently denied all the claims.
All but one Republican lined up behind him, arguing that a truncated FBI investigation turned up no corroborating witnesses and that Kavanaugh had sterling credentials for the court. Exactly one month from elections in which House and Senate control are in play, Democrats tried making sure that female voters were paying attention.
“Republicans are saying: ‘Your voices just don’t matter,'” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said Saturday. “Your experiences, your trauma, your pain, your heartache, your anger — none of that matters. Their message is, ‘We don’t have to listen. We don’t have to care. Sit down and be quiet.'”
About 100 anti-Kavanaugh protesters climbed the Capitol’s East Steps as the vote approached, pumping fists and waving signs, and U.S. Capitol Police officers began arresting some of them. Hundreds of other demonstrators watched from behind barricades. Protesters have roamed Capitol Hill corridors and grounds daily, raising anxieties and underscoring the passions the nomination fight has aroused.
“November is coming,” ”Vote them out” and “We believe survivors,” they chanted.
Friday’s announcements of support by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia made the final confirmation vote a formality, though still an emotional one. The roll call was ending a contest fought against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and Trump’s unyielding support of his nominee.
Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate.
Kavanaugh’s expected two-vote victory in itself underscored how unusually divisive his nomination fight has been. It would be the closest roll call to confirm a justice since 1881, when Stanley Matthews was approved by 24-23, according to Senate records.
In the moment on Friday that made it clear Kavanaugh would prevail, Collins delivered a speech saying that Ford’s Judiciary Committee telling of the 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 must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy,” said Collins, perhaps the chamber’s most moderate Republican.
Manchin used an emailed statement to announce his support for Kavanaugh moments after Collins finished affirming hers. 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.
Manchin expressed empathy for sexual assault victims. But he said that after factoring in the FBI report, “I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution.”
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.”
In a twist, Murkowski said she would 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. That procedure lets a senator offset another’s absence without affecting the outcome, and would allow Kavanaugh to win by the same two-vote margin he would have received had both lawmakers voted.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has repeatedly battled Trump and will retire in January, said he would 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.
In a procedural vote Friday that handed Republicans a vital initial victory, senators voted 51-49 to limit debate, defeating Democratic efforts to scuttle the nomination with endless delays.
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 allegations of connections between the president’s 2016 campaign and Russia tried to pursue him in court.
Yet Kavanaugh’s path to confirmation seemed unfettered until Ford and two other women emerged with sexual misconduct allegations from the 1980s.
Kavanaugh would replace the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a swing vote on issues such as abortion, campaign finance and same-sex marriage.