Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle

Senate Republicans on Monday signaled they are ready to move forward with a vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh if the woman accusing him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, fails to show up to a hearing on Monday.

Republicans believe Ford’s surprise refusal to testify at the special hearing, where she and Kavanaugh have been invited to appear as the only two witnesses, has given them an upper hand in a public relations battle with Senate Democrats.

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It has emboldened the GOP to press ahead with a vote as soon as next week, despite Ford’s stunning allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were teenagers at a 1980s high school party.

“There’s going to be a vote right away,” said one senior Senate Republican aide. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - What to watch for as Mueller’s probe winds down Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Drug pricing fight centers on insulin MORE (R-Iowa) late Wednesday in a letter to committee Democrats rejected calls to delay Monday’s hearing. He also said Ford had until 10 a.m. Friday to say whether she would appear at the hearing.

If Ford does not change her mind and does not testify, however, many believe a public hearing could be canceled. Allowing it to go forward with just Kavanaugh would allow Democrats to turn him into a piñata.

Democrats on the panel, including potential White House candidates Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSanders endorses Oakland teachers strike The Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation builds for Mueller report Why Georgia is the place for black migration and politics MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOvernight Energy: Natural gas export project gets green light | Ocasio-Cortez says climate fight needs to address farming | Top EPA enforcement official to testify Sanders endorses Oakland teachers strike News media has sought to 'delegitimize' Tulsi Gabbard, says liberal journalist MORE (Calif.), could ask embarrassing questions to Kavanaugh about his drinking or sexual history.

Ford alleges that the assault happened at a party 36 years ago where Kavanaugh was “stumbling drunk,” which has put a spotlight on references to heavy drinking and partying in Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook profile. 

“What would be the purpose of the hearing if Dr. Ford doesn’t want to respond?” Grassley told The Hugh Hewitt Show Tuesday. 

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham: 'Handful' of GOP senators will vote to block Trump's emergency declaration Dems set up Tuesday vote to block Trump's emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump MORE (R-Maine), a pivotal swing vote, predicted the hearing would not go forward if only Kavanaugh is set to testify.

“I think that would be a real disservice to both Judge Kavanaugh and Professor Ford,” she said in an interview with WVOM, the Voice of Maine.

In a political fight playing out weeks before a midterm election where suburban women voters are expected to be critical, the fight has risks and huge stakes for both parties.

Liberals are battling to block a pivotal vote from being placed on the Supreme Court, while Republicans are worried about looking insensitive in the “me too” era.

Republicans have been careful to say they want to hear from Ford, whether it is part of a public hearing, a closed session, or privately before a bipartisan team of committee investigators.  Grassley has offered to send committee staff to California, where Ford lives, to interview her about her allegations against Kavanaugh. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE has avoided any controversial statements about Ford, and on Wednesday emphasized that he wants to hear from her. “I really want to see her. I really would want to see what she has to say,” the president told reporters from the White House.

Without Ford’s testimony, GOP aides say Democrats have little leverage to further delay Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Three GOP centrists, whose votes appeared to be in doubt, on Wednesday seemed to be shifting back towards Kavanaugh given Ford’s decision to not testify.

Collins is seen as the most important of the three members.  

“We’re talking about a jury of one: Susan Collins. Whatever Collins does, [Sen.] Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump's emergency declaration MORE [R-Alaska] will do too. The signals from Collins are: I want to hear from her, this is a good offer, we’re being flexible,” said a second GOP aide. 

Democrats say they haven’t been coordinating with Ford but instead are giving her space to decide on her own whether she wants to testify.

An aide said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDon’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (N.Y.) has not been in touch with Ford since Monday, when Republicans announced they would hold a hearing next week to examine her allegation. 

Another Democratic source said Ford is “driving the decision” about “whether to testify and how,” leaving Senate Democrats largely powerless to decide whether she shows up on Monday or if there even is a hearing. 

A third Democratic source said, “she hasn’t made up her mind” and “it’s not clear she’s not going to come forward,” adding “no one really knows.” 

While most Republicans have sought to avoid direct criticism of Ford, there were more signs of frustration on Wednesday.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, accused Ford and her lawyers of “moving the goal post,” referring to her willingness to testify. Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate plots to avoid fall shutdown brawl Inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Trump endorses Cornyn for reelection as O'Rourke mulls challenge MORE (R-Texas), who is also on Judiciary, complained, “The problem is Dr. Ford can’t remember when it was, where it was, or how it came to be.”

While Republicans want to move forward with Kavanaugh, Democrats say they are rushing the process, an argument that could be buttressed by a vote next week.

“If Republicans go ahead and schedule the hearing and vote without [Ford] it shows a complete lack of integrity and sincerity of the part of the Republicans but we have known from the very beginning their view of this nomination has been win at all costs,” said Nan Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination. 

Aron pointed to the political backlash that followed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation in 1991, when Republicans ignored allegations that he sexually harassed Anita Hill. The following year, four women Democrats were elected to the Senate — and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Howard Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Trump says he never told McCabe his wife was 'a loser' MORE won the presidency — in what became known as the Year of the Woman. 

Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, another advocacy group opposed to Kavanaugh, warned that the politics of Kavanaugh’s confirmation have changed and the GOP will pay a political price with plowing ahead. 

“The more that they push forward in defiance of this woman’s very credible claims, the more they risk setting off an intense voter backlash like the one that ensued after Anita Hill in 1991,” he said. “The historical precedent here looms large in terms of 1992 producing a wave of women elected to Congress based on an outrage that began with the handling of the Anita Hill hearings.”