WASHINGTON — Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court took a major step forward Friday as Senate Republicans narrowly voted to end debate and move to a final vote as soon as Saturday.
By a vote of 51–49 Republicans voted to invoke cloture, which limits further debate and kills the Democrats’ ability to filibuster the nomination.
It is a sign that Republicans could have the votes to confirm Kavanaugh through the most acrimonious Supreme Court battle in recent memory.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican to vote against the cloture motion, while West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to vote in favor. Unlike the bold gesture of John McCain when he killed Obamacare repeal on the Senate floor, both Murkowski and Manchin seemed almost bashful with their votes. Murkowski said "No" so quietly that people in the Senate gallery couldn't make out what she said. Manchin didn't even say anything at all, but just stared ahead and lifted his thumb upward to express his yes vote.
Murkowski told reporters after the vote Friday that she will oppose Kavanaugh on a final vote as well, saying she made her decision as she walked on to the Senate floor this morning. "I believe we are dealing with issues that are bigger than a nominee," she said.
“I believe Brett Kavanaugh is a good man,” Murkowski said. “In my view he’s not the right man for the court at this time.”
Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Jeff Flake, two other potential swing votes, both voted yes Friday. Collins still hasn't said publicly how she will vote on Kavanaugh's final confirmation. She is set to make that announcement at 3 p.m.
Voting yes on cloture likely, but doesn't necessarily, indicate support for Kavanaugh. The vote is an agreement to end debate and move forward. In some unusual cases, members have agreed to move forward on a vote only to then oppose it (as McCain did on repealing Obamacare).
A final vote is expected around mid-afternoon Saturday. Unless two senators change their position at the last minute, Kavanaugh will be confirmed.
The nomination had initially seemed to be a safe bet, but became imperiled after Palo Alto 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 by a week when Republican Sen. Jeff Flake sided with Democrats demanding an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
Senators spent the 24 hours before Friday’s vote reading the results of the FBI investigation. Republicans say the FBI cleared Kavanaugh and found no signs of wrongdoing. Democrats have railed against the process, saying that only 9 people were interviewed (the 10th declined) despite dozens of names of possible witnesses being put forward. “It smacks of a whitewash,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. They also say the FBI report raises more questions that need to be answered.
Republicans have dismissed the criticisms as pure obstructionism, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying Thursday, “There’s no way anything we did could satisfy Democrats.” 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.
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. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited positive poll results for Republicans in recent days while defending Kavanaugh.
Both Ford and Kavanaugh gave emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Kavanaugh angrily denounced the allegations as part of a coordinated smear campaign, and also broke into tears while describing the impact on his reputation and his family.
Ultimately, while many Republicans said they found Ford to be a credible witness they pointed to a lack of evidence or witnesses to corroborate her account.
Two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, came forward with separate allegations against Kavanaugh but they were not asked to testify before the Judiciary Committee. Ramirez was interviewed by the FBI, but multiple witnesses she put forward were not.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation could mark a major shift to the right for the Supreme Court as he is set to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was seen as a swing vote on the court.
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. 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.
The FBI interviewed 9 people and contacted a 10th who declined to be interviewed in its investigation of the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. An earlier version of this story said the FBI interviewed 10 people.