WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Republican-led committee approved President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday but in a dramatic development Republican Senator Jeff Flake called for an FBI investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against the judge before a final Senate vote.
The intervention of Flake, a moderate, put Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge nominated for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court, in further doubt. It means a final Senate vote on the nomination could be delayed for up to a week so a possible FBI investigation can be completed, if Republican Senate leaders agree to Flake’s demand.
Democrats, who have opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination from the outset, had called for an FBI probe, but Republicans and Trump had opposed the move.
Flake’s action came a day after the Judiciary Committee’s jarring and emotional hearing into the allegations against Kavanaugh that gripped the country, with a university professor named Christine Blasey Ford accusing him of sexually assaulting her in 1982 when both were high schools students in Maryland. Kavanaugh denied the accusation.
“This country’s being ripped apart here,” Flake, with a pained look on his face, told his fellow senators. “… I think we can have a short pause,” Flake added.
“We ought to do what we can to make sure that we do all due diligence with a nomination this important,” said Flake, who earlier in the day announced he would vote for Kavanaugh in the committee.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has not said how she will vote on Kavanaugh, quickly endorsed Flake’s request.
“I’m going to let the Senate handle that. They’ll make their decisions. And they’ve been doing a good job. Very professional,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when told about Flake’s request.
The Republican president, however, indicated he was sticking with Kavanaugh’s nomination, saying he has not thought “even a little bit” about a replacement for his nominee.
It was unclear if the FBI investigation will take place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office had no immediate comment. The committee moved to advance the nomination 11-10 on party lines, with Trump’s fellow Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
“All I’ve said to Senator Flake is I would advocate for the position he took, but I don’t control that,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the committee.
Immediately after the panel’s vote, senior Republican members of the panel went to McConnell’s office. Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said a decision on Flake’s proposal would be made later in the day. Republican Senator Thom Tillis said he believes McConnell will accept Flake’s request.
Even before Flake’s announcement, it was unclear if Republicans had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh on the Senate floor. Republicans hold a slim Senate 51-49 majority, making the votes of two other so-far undecided Republican moderates crucial: Murkowski and Susan Collins.
Trump said Murkowski and Collins must do what they think is right. Murkowski said she supposed Flake’s move, as did moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, who has not yet announced how he will vote on Kavanaugh.
On the Senate floor, Trump can afford to lose the vote of only one senator in his own party if all the Democrats vote against Kavanaugh and Vice President Pence casts a tie-breaking vote.
Trump said he found Ford’s testimony “very compelling” and Kavanaugh’s angry and defiant response “incredible.”
“I just want it to work out well for the country. If that happens, I’m happy,” Trump added.
Just before the scheduled vote in the committee, Flake left the room to talk to some Democrats, adding turmoil to the proceedings. During the delay, senators and aides could be seen in the committee room having hushed conversations, with some going back and forth to an anteroom of the committee chamber.
“It is my hope that we could work together on a bipartisan basis to diligently pursue an FBI investigation within the next week, not for the purpose of delay but for the purpose of investigating further – either allegations made by Dr. Ford or others,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons, who played an important role in the negotiations.
Earlier in the day Flake, who had previously raised concerns about the allegations against Kavanaugh, said Ford gave “compelling testimony” but Kavanaugh provided “a persuasive response.”
Soon after Flake made his announcement that he would vote for Kavanaugh, the senator was confronted in an elevator while on his way to the committee meeting by two protesters who said they were sexual assault survivors.
“That’s what you’re telling all women in America – that they don’t matter, they should just keep it to themselves,” one of the protesters shouted at Flake in an exchange aired by CNN.
“I need to go to my hearing. I’ve issued my statement,” Flake said.
The timing of the panel’s session gave committee members little time to review Thursday’s extraordinary testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford. Kavanaugh accused Democrats of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit.”
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said that Republican leadership would have to listen to Flake and potentially other senators who want an FBI probe.
Before Flake’s move, committee Republicans voted down a Democratic motion seeking to subpoena Mark Judge, a Kavanaugh friend who Ford said witnessed the assault. Judge had told the committee in a written statement he does not recall any such incident. He is likely to be central to any FBI probe.
“If the FBI or any law enforcement agency requests Mr. Judge’s cooperation, he will answer any and all questions posed to him,” said his lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder.
‘INTERGALACTIC FREAK SHOW’
As the committee, with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, set its vote, some Democrats left the room in protest. “What a railroad job,” Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono said.
One Republican, Senator John Kennedy, called Kavanaugh’s confirmation process “an intergalactic freak show.”
Grassley said he found Thursday’s testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh “credible,” but added, “There’s simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court on the basis of evidence presented to us.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s senior Democrat, called Kavanaugh’s remarks unseemly for a judicial nominee.
“This was someone who was aggressive and belligerent. I have never seen someone who wants to be elevated to the highest court in the country behave in that manner. In stark contrast, the person who testified yesterday and demonstrated a balanced temperament was Dr. Ford,” Feinstein said.
Klobuchar noted that Grassley had thanked Ford for her bravery but nevertheless failed to back any further investigation.
“Where is the bravery in this room?” Klobuchar asked.
The controversy has unfolded just weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to seize control of Congress from the Republicans, against a backdrop of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh would consolidate conservative control of the nation’s highest court and advance Trump’s broad effort to shift the American judiciary to the right.
Democrats said Kavanaugh’s confirmation could taint the Supreme Court, which prides itself on staying above the political fray.
“Voting to advance and ultimately confirm Judge Kavanaugh while he is under this dark cloud of suspicion will forever change the Senate and our nation’s high court. It will politicize the U.S. Supreme Court,” Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said.
The American Bar Association, which earlier endorsed Kavanaugh, and the dean of Yale Law School, which Kavanaugh attended, also called for an FBI probe on Friday, the first indication of the legal profession turning on the nominee.
Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote on contentious legal issues if he is confirmed to the nine-member court, with disputes involving abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops possibly heading to the court soon. The court begins its next term on Monday, down one justice after the retirement of conservative Anthony Kennedy effective in July. Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy.
Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Amanda Becker, Andrew Chung, Roberta Rampton Susan Heavey and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Will Dunham