WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 50–48 to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court Saturday, the narrowest vote on a Supreme Court nomination in 137 years.
The confirmation is a major victory for Republicans after sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh threatened to sink his nomination in recent weeks. His appointment could move the top court to the right for a generation.
It was the most heated and controversial confirmation in recent memory, with hundreds of people protesting in the halls of the Senate over the last two weeks as well as outside the Capitol and the Supreme Court on Saturday. During the vote, several protesters started screaming and shouting from the gallery down toward the senators on the floor before being escorted out. Some chanted “I do not consent” as the vote got underway.
Only James Garfield’s nominee Stanley Matthews, who was confirmed by a 24–23 record in 1881, had a tighter nomination victory than Kavanaugh. “I always thought landslides were kind of boring anyway,” a jubilant Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the vote.
Only two senators broke with their parties on the nomination. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the only Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the sole Republican to oppose him; however, she was officially marked as “present” rather than a no.
This is because she “paired” her vote with Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who would have voted yes but was in Montana Saturday for his daughter’s wedding. By voting present, Murkowski removed one no vote to match his missing yes vote. Daines was prepared to fly back to DC, so the only real-world effect of Murkowski’s move was to allow him to stay at the wedding. Had they both voted, the outcome would have been unchanged, but the final tally would have been 51–49 in favor of confirmation.
Just after Manchin voted yes, two women who said they are survivors of sexual assault yelled, “Shame on you. How dare you prioritize him over us,” as Manchin looked up and made eye contact with them.
Vice President Mike Pence was on hand for the vote, though he was not needed to break a tie. Pence made the final announcement that Kavanaugh will now be the next Supreme Court justice.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation could mark a significant shift to the right for the Supreme Court. He replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely seen as the swing vote on the court, who retired in June. With the court being made up of four reliable conservative-leaning justices, and four liberal-leaning justices, Kennedy often played the role of tie-breaker.
Shortly after the vote Saturday, Kavanaugh was sworn in as a justice, taking two oaths — a constitutional oath administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, and a judicial oath administered by Kennedy. The court is next set to hear cases at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and Kavanaugh is expected to be on the bench.
Kavanaugh’s nomination initially seemed like a safe bet in July, but became imperiled in September after California professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that Kavanaugh held her down, groped her, and covered her mouth to muffle her screams during a party when they were both in high school. The vote was delayed to hear testimony from Ford and Kavanaugh, and then delayed again when Republican Sen. Jeff Flake sided with Democrats demanding a weeklong FBI investigation into the allegations.
Senators spent Thursday reading the results of the FBI investigation. Republicans say the FBI cleared Kavanaugh and found no signs of wrongdoing. Democrats have suggested that’s not wholly true and railed against the process, pointing to the fact that only nine people were interviewed despite dozens of names of possible witnesses being put forward. “It smacks of a whitewash,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Because the report is confidential, senators refused to discuss specifics of what the FBI found, and the public has no way of drawing its own conclusions.
Republicans dismissed Democrats’ criticisms as pure obstructionism and pushed forward with a vote, with McConnell saying Thursday, “There’s no way anything we did could satisfy Democrats.”
Just before the vote Saturday, McConnell argued that “a vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh today is a vote to end this brief, dark chapter in the Senate's history and turn the page toward a brighter tomorrow.” McConnell added that Kavanaugh will “make the Senate and the American people proud.”
The nomination battle has caused a surge in grassroots anger on both the left and right, with midterm elections just weeks away and control of Congress hanging in the balance. Capitol Police arrested 164 protesters on Saturday alone, according to a spokesperson, including 13 who were removed from the Senate galleries for shouting during the vote.
In his own speech ahead of Saturday’s vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged that Democrats had lost the battle on Kavanaugh, but encouraged the “many millions who are outraged by what happened here” to vote.
McConnell acknowledged that the Democratic base has had a lot of energy throughout 2018, but said that the way Democrats handled the Kavanaugh nomination had really ignited Republican voters.
“Our base is fired up. We finally discovered the one thing that fired up the Republican base, and we didn't think of it, but the other side did it. The tactics that have been employed both by Judiciary Committee Democratic senators and by the virtual mob that’s assaulting all of us in the course of the process has turned our base on fire,” McConnell said. “They managed to deliver the only thing we had not been able to figure out how to do, which was to get our folks fired up.”
Kavanaugh, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and was part of Ken Starr’s team investigating Bill Clinton, is expected to be a more consistently conservative justice than his predecessor. While Kennedy was appointed by Ronald Reagan and frequently voted with the conservative bloc, he also sided with the liberals on key cases such as legalizing same-sex marriage and placing limits on the death penalty.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican whose endorsement of Kavanaugh on Friday put him over the 50-vote threshold, said in a speech announcing her decision that she believes he will not support overturning gay marriage, the preexisting condition protections of Obamacare, or Roe v. Wade.
Roe has been a major concern of pro–abortion rights activists who fear Kavanaugh will be the fifth Supreme Court vote to overturn abortion rights. But Collins said that in her two-hour discussion with Kavanaugh he described Roe as settled law, and said Supreme Court justices have no right to overturn settled law just because they disagree with it.
Trump told reporters just before Saturday’s vote that he was pleased that Collins had come around, calling her speech “from the heart,” and said he looked forward to Kavanaugh joining the Supreme Court. “He will be a great justice of the Supreme Court. People have thought that for 10 years. They thought he's just an extraordinary person, a great, great talent, and I think he's going to make us all very proud,” Trump said.
After the vote concluded, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an avid supporter of Kavanaugh’s, again bemoaned the way the judge was treated after he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women — charges Kavanaugh has denied. “What blew me away was how vicious it was,” Graham said. “What happened to Kavanaugh was unsustainable. If you don't think our people can’t do this, you're not thinking.”
Lissandra Villa and Chris Geidner contributed reporting to this story.