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 CollinsOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Overnight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief MORE (R-Alaska), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane Flake70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents McSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad McSally launches 2020 campaign MORE (R-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way 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 CornynHillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick 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 McConnellRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Democrats block two Senate abortion bills VA could lead way for nation on lower drug pricing 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 AlexanderLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children MORE (Tenn.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Republicans give Barr vote of confidence Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills MORE (S.C.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way GOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (Ohio.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: More closures possible at US bases in Europe as coronavirus spreads | Pompeo says Afghan 'reduction in violence is working' | Man accused of trying to blow up vehicle at Pentagon Top general: More closures at US bases in Europe possible as coronavirus spreads Limbaugh claims coronavirus is being 'weaponized' to 'bring down' Trump 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 DainesAs many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran Senate set for closing arguments on impeachment Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line 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 ThuneRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman 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 GrassleyMcSally unveils bill to lower drug prices amid tough campaign Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case 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 FeinsteinCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe House passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum 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 TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far 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.