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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 CollinsConservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns Susan Collins and the mob mentality MORE (R-Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPoll: Palin unpopular in Alaska following jab at Murkowski Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Ex-Florida lawmaker leaves Republican Party MORE (R-Alaska), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump boosts McSally, bashes Sinema in Arizona Watch live: Trump speaks at Arizona rally Mnuchin to attend anti-terror meeting in Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi disappearance MORE (R-Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Blankenship endorses ex-W.Va. GOP Senate rival, calls him 'lying' drug lobbyist 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 CornynO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown 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 McConnellDemocrats slide in battle for Senate McConnell and wife confronted by customers at restaurant Pelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care 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 AlexanderOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senate blocks Dem measure on short-term health plans | Trump signs bill banning drug price 'gag clauses' | DOJ approves Aetna-CVS merger | Juul ramps up lobbying Trump signs bills banning drug pricing 'gag clauses' Senate defeats measure to overturn Trump expansion of non-ObamaCare plans MORE (Tenn.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Memo: Trump in a corner on Saudi Arabia Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project CNN's Smerconish: What do Saudis have over American presidents? MORE (S.C.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOn The Money: Mnuchin to attend anti-terror meeting in Saudi Arabia | Treasury releases guidance on 'opportunity zone' program | Maxine Waters gets company in new GOP line of attack Election Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms How Kavanaugh got the votes  MORE (Ohio.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFlake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Susan Collins becomes top 2020 target for Dems 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 DainesTrump administration could use military bases to export coal, gas McConnell: No one is going to beat Murkowski in Alaska Murkowski brushes off GOP backlash: 'I'm good with' Kavanaugh vote 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 ThuneDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Through a national commitment to youth sports, we can break the obesity cycle Florida politics play into disaster relief debate 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 GrassleyGOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October 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 FeinsteinDurbin to Trump: ‘We’re the mob? Give me a break’ Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue GOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks 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 TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council 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.