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 GrassleyGrassley, Wyden reach deal to lower drug prices Overnight Energy: Senators push back on EPA's new FOIA rule | Agency digs in on rule change | Watchdog expands ethics probe of former EPA air chief Bipartisan senators fight 'political considerations' in EPA's new FOIA rule 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 BookerBooker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration 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 CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report 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 Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota 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 MurkowskiPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey Epstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse 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 SchumerOn The Money: Trump, Congress reach two-year budget, debt limit deal | What we know | Deal gets pushback from conservatives | Equifax to pay up to 0M in data breach settlement | Warren warns another 'crash' is coming Overnight Defense: Iran's spy claim adds to tensions with US | Trump, lawmakers get two-year budget deal | Trump claims he could win Afghan war in a week Trump, Democrats clinch two-year budget deal 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 CornynTrump, Democrats clinch two-year budget deal Overnight Energy: Senators push back on EPA's new FOIA rule | Agency digs in on rule change | Watchdog expands ethics probe of former EPA air chief Bipartisan senators fight 'political considerations' in EPA's new FOIA rule 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 ClintonDavis: Advice to House Democrats — Mueller is right to stick to the facts; don't ask him to imitate Starr and Comey Biden campaign taps foreign policy vet Nicholas Burns as adviser: report Major health reform requires Democratic congressional dominance 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.”