Donald Trump’s effort to shift the US Supreme Court to the right faces a critical test this week after a woman who accused his nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault agreed to testify in a Senate hearing on Thursday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee over the weekend reached a tentative deal with Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who, through her lawyer, has accused the judge of attempted rape, to appear before the committee on the same day that Mr Kavanaugh will testify before the panel of Republican and Democratic senators.
The deal sets the stage for a dramatic showdown that could determine if Mr Trump will succeed in placing a second conservative judge on the court following the appointment of Neil Gorsuch last year. The allegations, which Mr Kavanaugh has strongly denied, have sparked a political firestorm on Capitol Hill as Democrats attempt to use the charges to derail a nomination that would shift the ideological balance of the high court to the right.
Mr Trump is desperate to confirm Mr Kavanaugh quickly, partly out of concern that the Democrats could win the Senate in the midterm elections. While the odds of the Democrats winning the Senate are low, control of the upper chamber would block him from satisfying his base by reshaping the court in a conservative mould for decades.
Republicans have accused the Democrats of playing politics over the allegations, which emerged at the end of the confirmation process as the Senate Judiciary Committee was preparing to vote on his nomination. While the Democrats argued for a public hearing, they also want an FBI investigation and argue that the committee, and later full Senate, should not hold a vote until an investigation has been completed.
Republicans have been forced into a corner because, while they are more sympathetic to Mr Kavanaugh, they are worried that being seen to ignore Ms Ford’s claims in the #MeToo era could hurt them among female voters at the ballot box in November.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, last week called the furore a “hiccup” and urged conservatives to “keep the faith” over the nomination. “Don’t get rattled by all of this. We’re going to plough right through it and do our job,” he said.
Patti Murray, a Washington Democratic senator, accused Republicans of making light of the allegations. “That kind of conversation is exactly what leads to many people in this country, women and men, saying ‘they don’t get it,’ particularly now, in the #MeToo movement, where women have felt that they can speak out,” she told CNN.
Illustrating the political sensitivities, Republican leaders have urged Mr Trump not to attack Ms Ford the way he frequently attacks his critics. The president drew harsh criticism on Friday when he suggested on Twitter that Ms Ford was exaggerating the circumstances of the alleged assault.
“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” Mr Trump tweeted.
Susan Collins, the Maine GOP senator who was already one of the several undecided Republicans before the allegations emerged, said she was “appalled” by the tweet since sexual assaults against women are one of the most unreported crimes in America.
Ms Ford alleges that Mr Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her at a party where he and a friend named Mark Judge were both drunk. She says Mr Kavanaugh forced her on to a bed and tried to undress her, and that he covered her mouth when she tried to scream. She says she managed to escape when Mr Judge jumped on top of the pair.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi