Kavanaugh advances in key Senate vote

Brett Kavanaugh cleared a key hurdle Friday as Senate Republicans aim to confirm him to the Supreme Court this weekend.

Senators voted to end debate on Kavanaugh’s nomination, setting up a confirmation vote for Saturday afternoon.

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It was a dramatic moment on the Senate floor as Kavanaugh did not know even an hour before the vote whether he would muster the 51 votes needed to advance because four undecided senators — Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLobbying World Senators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House MORE (R-Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate advances Trump energy pick after Manchin flips The Senate must reject Bernard McNamee’s nomination for FERC Overnight Defense: Congress pauses to mourn George H.W. Bush | Haspel to brief senators on Khashoggi killing | Soldier is fourth to die from Afghan IED blast MORE (R-Alaska), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePence casts tie-breaking vote for Trump appeals court judge Dem: 'Disheartening' that Republicans who 'stepped up' to defend Mueller are leaving Flake: Republican Party ‘is a frog slowly boiling in water’ MORE (R-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Trump moves to ease Obama water rule | EPA document contradicts agency over water rule data| Manchin to be top Dem on Senate Energy panel Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee Schumer to Trump: Future infrastructure bill must combat climate change MORE (D-W.Va.) — declined to announce their positions.

Senate Republicans acknowledged ahead of time that they might not know the outcome of the vote by the time it started — an unusual move for a leadership team that likes to keep a tight grip on floor action.

“This may be one of the exceptions to the rule. Ordinarily we would know but a number of my colleagues … reserve their right to make their own announcement,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynOval Office clash ups chances of shutdown On The Money: Trump, Dems battle over border wall before cameras | Clash ups odds of shutdown | Senators stunned by Trump's shutdown threat | Pelosi calls wall 'a manhood thing' for Trump Senators dumbfounded by Trump vow to shut down government MORE (R-Texas), the Senate majority whip, said Friday morning before the cloture vote. “So there’s going to be a lot of drama.”

Kavanaugh’s nomination got a last-minute boost when Flake, Manchin and Collins voted to end debate on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Manchin was the only Democrat to vote “yes.”

Murkowski, however, voted against advancing the nomination, the only Republican to do so.

She voiced her opposition so softly that senators on the floor and members of the press in the overhead galleries had trouble discerning if she was a yes or a no.

Murkowski’s vote caused a murmur through the press gallery, and Cornyn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOval Office clash ups chances of shutdown On The Money: Trump, Dems battle over border wall before cameras | Clash ups odds of shutdown | Senators stunned by Trump's shutdown threat | Pelosi calls wall 'a manhood thing' for Trump Mellman: Enemies of democracy MORE’s (R-Ky.) chief of staff, Sharon Soderstrom, went straight to her and Collins, who were sitting next to each other on the floor, to make sure Kavanaugh’s nomination wasn't headed for defeat. 

Collins sparked some concerns among Republican senators by hugging Murkowski after she voted "no."

Murkowski and Collins were soon surrounded by a larger group of colleagues, including GOP Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderRepublicans skeptical of Trump’s plan to have military build the wall The Year Ahead: Drug pricing efforts to test bipartisanship Overnight Health Care: Manchin pitched Trump on reviving bipartisan ObamaCare fix | 4 in 10 don’t plan to get flu shots | Survey finds more than a quarter have pre-existing conditions MORE (Tenn.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOval Office clash ups chances of shutdown Republicans skeptical of Trump’s plan to have military build the wall Corker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death MORE (S.C.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown On The Money: Trump touts China actions day after stock slide | China 'confident' on new trade deal | GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts | Huawei CFO arrested GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts MORE (Ohio.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonMcConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill McConnell warns Senate it could work through Christmas break GOP fights piling up for McConnell MORE (Ark.).

Murkowski told reporters after the vote that she has been “wrestling” with the decision, which she described as the “most difficult” of her political career.

“I have been wrestling with whether or not this was about the qualifications of a good man or is this bigger than the nominee and I believe we are dealing with issues right now that are bigger than a nominee,” Murkowski said.

She added that while she considers Kavanaugh a “good man … it just may be that in my view he's not the right man for the court at this time."

Republicans hold a slim two-seat majority in the Senate, which allows them to lose one vote from their conference and still confirm Kavanaugh without Democratic help.

The vote’s drama was upped a notch Thursday evening when Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOvernight Health Care: Senators urge vote on delaying health insurance tax | Joe Kennedy III 'hopeful' he can back 'Medicare for all' bill | Latest Ebola outbreak becomes world's 2nd-worst Overnight Defense: Senate rebukes Trump with Yemen vote | Mattis, Pompeo briefing fails to quell Senate concerns with Saudis | Graham demands CIA briefing on Khashoggi | Pentagon identifies three troops killed in Afghanistan Senate GOP presses Trump to move on new NAFTA deal before Dems take over House MORE (R-Mont.) announced that he would leave Washington after the procedural vote to fly to Montana for his daughter’s wedding on Saturday, possibly leaving Republicans short-handed for the final confirmation vote.

Cornyn told a Texas radio station on Friday that GOP leaders have been in “close consultation” with Daines and are “working closely with him to figure it out.”

Daines, after the cloture vote, told reporters that they had the final vote “covered.”

“We’re going to have a new Supreme Court justice this weekend and I’m going to get to walk my daughter down the aisle,” Daines said.

But Kavanaugh isn’t, yet, a lock for confirmation.

The situation was made more uncertain because leadership believes Murkowski will be a “no” vote on the final up-or-down confirmation vote. Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOn The Money: Trump, Dems battle over border wall before cameras | Clash ups odds of shutdown | Senators stunned by Trump's shutdown threat | Pelosi calls wall 'a manhood thing' for Trump Senators dumbfounded by Trump vow to shut down government The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP Senator, said he would be “surprised” if she changes her mind and votes to confirm Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court seat.

"I think she's cast her vote on this one and I think people kind of want to hear her thought process a little bit,” he said.

Meanwhile, Collins has not if she will support Kavanaugh during a final up-or-down confirmation vote, even though she agreed to support him on the procedural motion. She is expected to announce her position on Kavanaugh during a 3 p.m. floor speech on Friday, but GOP senators say they are confident she will ultimately be a yes.

"We feel good about it, but every senator votes their conscience and casts their own vote so we'll let them do that and see how it comes out tomorrow. But I think today was a pretty good indication of where folks are, so we'll see,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican senator, asked about the prospects for Saturday’s vote.

The Friday morning vote came a day after senators began reviewing a 46-page supplemental FBI report on sexual assault allegations that threw Kavanaugh’s nomination into chaos and sparked a national conversation on sexual assault.

Republicans said the report did not offer any evidence corroborating the accusations of sexual misconduct from Christine Blasey Ford or Deborah Ramirez. Democrats countered that the investigation was too limited and left out key witnesses who supported Ford’s account.

Ford alleges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s when they were both in high school. Ramirez says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were both college students at Yale University.

And though key swing votes remained undecided Thursday after being briefed on the FBI’s report, their colleagues appeared confident that Kavanaugh would ultimately get the votes to be confirmed after Collins and Flake spoke positively about the investigation.

Collins told reporters that the FBI’s work seemed “very thorough.” Flake added that “no new corroborative information came out of it.”

“I think most of the members that have been done there, have had a chance to review those documents and there isn’t anything that I don’t think we didn’t already know,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Republican senator, told reporters on Thursday evening, asked if he thought the FBI’s report had swayed any Republican senators.

Friday’s vote marks the beginning of the end of a deeply bitter, partisan fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination. Republican senators have increasingly been confronted in the Capitol by protesters and several members have been escorted to votes and committee hearings by Capitol Police officers.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Amgen — House passes bill to stop drug companies overcharging Medicaid | Incoming Dem chairman open to 'Medicare For All' hearings | Bill to reduce maternal mortality rates passes House House passes bill to keep drug companies from overcharging Medicaid Pence casts tie-breaking vote for Trump appeals court judge MORE (R-Iowa) accused Democrats and allied liberal groups of waging a concerted campaign to destroy the nominee’s reputation.

“What left-wing groups and their Democratic allies have done to Judge Kavanaugh is nothing short of monstrous,” he said.

Democrats lashed out at Republicans over the process for investigating the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh and have focused their closing argument on his “credibility” and if he “mislead” the committee.

“It's important to remember why we are here today. We are here to determine whether Judge Kavanaugh has demonstrated the impartiality, the temperament, the evenhandedness that's needed to serve on this great high court of our land. ... I do not believe Judge Kavanaugh has earned this seat,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinPence casts tie-breaking vote for Trump appeals court judge Time fumbles another 'Person of the Year' by excluding Kavanaugh Bottom Line MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, ahead of Friday’s vote.

But both sides were locked in partisan sniping even before Ford’s sexual assault allegation surfaced in mid-September.

Democrats say Kavanaugh misled the Judiciary Committee during his hearing for his current circuit court spot and wanted the Trump administration to turn over documents from Kavanaugh’s work as a staff secretary for President George W. Bush.

Republicans dismissed the request as a “fishing expedition.” Democrats said the paperwork was crucial to understanding Kavanaugh’s thinking and work on controversial Bush administration issues including torture and surveillance.

Democrat are currently bogged down in a lawsuit to compel agencies to give them the documents as part of an unprecedented Freedom of Information Act request.

Kavanaugh, if confirmed, is expected to help tilt the Supreme Court to the right for years to come and give Republicans and President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE a significant win a month before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Trump touted the FBI’s report and criticized protesters who have been confronting Republican senators in the lead-up to Friday’s vote.

“The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!” Trump added of the protesters.

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Updated at 12:54 a.m.