Over Democratic objections, Senate panel sets vote on Trump’s court pick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angry Democrats walked out as the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee set a vote over their objections for later on Friday on the nomination of President Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh after a key senator, Jeff Flake, threw his support behind the judge.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS

Republicans appeared to have the votes to approve Kavanaugh in the panel after Flake’s announcement. The committee’s meeting came the morning after a jarring and emotional hearing into sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh that gripped the country and reflected the larger U.S. political divide, with a university professor accusing the judge of sexual misconduct and the nominee angrily denying it.

The committee, with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, set the vote for 1:30 p.m. (1730 GMT) over strenuous objections from Democrats, some of whom left the room in protest. “What a railroad job,” Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono said.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee, praised Kavanaugh as he pressed forward with the vote.

“The alleged behavior is inconsistent with everything else we know about him,” Grassley said of Kavanaugh.

“It was only fair that his accuser had the burden of proof. In my opinion, this wasn’t met,” Grassley added.

The timing of the panel’s session gave committee members little time to review Thursday’s extraordinary testimony from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in 1982. Kavanaugh forcefully denied the accusations and accused Democrats of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, criticized Kavanaugh’s remarks, saying they were unseemly for a judicial nominee.

“This was someone who was aggressive and belligerent. I have never seen someone who wants to be elevated to the highest court in the country behave in that manner. In stark contrast, the person who testified yesterday and demonstrated a balanced temperament was Dr. Ford. She gave powerful testimony about her experience of being physically and sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh,” Feinstein.

A committee vote to approve Kavanaugh which pave the way for a final debate and vote on the Senate floor in the coming days.

Flake, who had raised concerns about the allegations, said on Friday morning he would vote in favor of the nomination. No other Republicans have indicated they are likely to vote against Kavanaugh.

Flake said in a statement that while Ford’s testimony was compelling, Kavanaugh gave a “persuasive response.”

Soon after Flake made his announcement, he was angrily confronted by protesters in an elevator while on his way to the committee meeting.

Female members of Congress stand in protest as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee meet to vote on the nomination of judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

If the nomination reaches the full Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority, the votes of two other so-far undecided Republican moderates could be crucial: Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

Democrats have urged a delay to allow for an FBI investigation, a move backed late Thursday by the American Bar Association, which had earlier endorsed his nomination.

“Why are they shutting it down? I believe it’s because they are trying to hide something,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat on the committee, told NBC’s “Today” program on Friday.

Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote on several contentious cases if he is confirmed, with disputes involving abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops possibly heading to the court soon.

Confirmation of Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, would cement conservative control of the nation’s highest court.

After a procedural vote that could come over the weekend, the full 100-member Senate could take action next week.

Ford testified she was “100 percent certain” that Kavanaugh assaulted her in 1982. Kavanaugh said he was innocent and the victim of “grotesque and obvious character assassination.”

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Questions were raised about Kavanaugh’s temperament at the hearing as well as his fiery political accusations and how that could impact his role on the court.

“I believe once he gets to the Supreme Court, he will call the balls and strikes fairly,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told “CBS This Morning,” using a baseball analogy.

Attention to the hearings moved far beyond the world of Washington politics. Ford has emerged in the eyes of many American women as a compelling figure in the #MeToo movement usually associated less with the names of victims and more with a list of high-profile men accused of misconduct.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping the full Senate will quickly approve Kavanaugh, possibly as soon as Tuesday. The Supreme Court will start its next session on Monday.

Trump called for senators to act quickly after the hearing, a message echoed by top White House aides early on Friday.

“It’s now time for the Senate to step up and have the vote,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. Asked if Trump had enough votes to confirm Kavanaugh, she said: “I certainly hope so, and I certainly think so.”

Her voice often filled with emotion, Ford for the first time on Thursday detailed her accusations against Kavanaugh.

She told the committee she feared Kavanaugh would rape and accidentally kill her during the alleged assault. “Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes … I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help,” Ford said.

For his part, Kavanaugh testified he was “100 percent certain” the incident did not occur.

He said: “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process.”

Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Susan Heavey and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Peter Cooney and Jeffrey Benkoe

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