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, means a final Senate vote on the nomination could be delayed for up to a week so that the possible FBI investigation can be completed, if Republican Senate leaders agree to his demand. Democrats had called for an FBI probe, but Republicans had opposed the move.
“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.
The committee, with tempers flaring on both sides, met the day after a jarring and emotional hearing into sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh that gripped the country, with a university professor named Christine Blasey Ford accusing him of sexual misconduct. 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,” Flake added.
It was unclear yet 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.
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 Judiciary Committee, Flake left the committee room to talk to some Democrats, adding new 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.
“I am grateful to Senator Flake,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons.
“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,” Coons added.
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 in the committee, 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 full Senate must confirm Supreme Court appointments.
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: Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.
Trump said Murkowski and Collins must do what they think is right. Murkowski said she supposed Flake’s move.
The timing of the panel’s session gave committee members little time to review Thursday’s extraordinary testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in 1982. Kavanaugh forcefully denied the accusations and 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.
Asked if there are enough Republicans to block confirmation in the absence of an FBI probe, Coons told reporters: “I’m optimistic that … Senator Flake and I, having had some conversations with some colleagues, have reason to be optimistic that that would be successful.”
‘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.
Another Democrat, Amy 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.
‘THEY DON’T MATTER’
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.
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.
Democrats have urged a delay in the confirmation process to allow for an FBI investigation. The American Bar Association, which earlier endorsed Kavanaugh, and the dean of Yale Law School, which Kavanaugh attended, also called for an FBI probe, the first indication of the legal profession turning on the nominee.
The committee Republicans also voted down a Democratic motion seeking to subpoena Mark Judge, a Kavanaugh friend who Ford said witnessed the assault. Judge told the committee in a written statement he does not recall any such incident.
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.
Attention to the hearing moved far beyond the world of Washington politics. Ford has emerged in the eyes of many American women as a compelling figure in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
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