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Moderates pave way for Kavanaugh’s confirmation

WASHINGTON — Senator Susan Collins ended weeks of suspense Friday and said she will vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, making it a near certainty the embattled nominee will win the seat in a vote Saturday and reshape the high court possibly for decades to come.

The crucial moderate Republican from Maine was joined in support of Kavanaugh by Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, and Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, two other late holdouts. The full Senate voted earlier Friday 51-49 to proceed to the final vote, reflecting the stark partisan divide that has marked one of the most bitter Supreme Court nomination fights in modern history.

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Speaking methodically on the Senate floor for more than 40 minutes, Collins denounced the rancorous confirmation battle as a “dysfunctional circus” and praised Kavanaugh’s judicial career. Then, she turned to the allegation that he had attacked a woman when the two were teenagers, and said it did not meet her standard of “more likely than not.”

“We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be,” Collins said.

Nodding to the #MeToo movement that has forced a cultural reckoning about the prevalence of sexual assault, Collins called testimony by the accuser, college professor Christine Blasey Ford, as “sincere, painful, and compelling.”

“I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life,” Collins said, but then pointed to what she described as a lack of corroborating witnesses for Ford’s claims.

“Therefore,” Collins said, “I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court.”

Moments after Collins finished her speech, Manchin, from a state where President Trump is enormously popular, threw his support behind Kavanaugh. The suspense surrounding the nominee’s fate was over.

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“I have reservations about the vote given the serious accusations against Judge Kavanaugh and the temperament he displayed in the hearing,” Manchin said, adding that he ultimately believed Kavanaugh was qualified. “I do hope that Judge Kavanaugh will not allow the partisan nature this process took to follow him to the court.”

If none of the senators change their mind before the final vote, which is expected Saturday, Kavanaugh will be the fifth solidly conservative justice on the Supreme Court, replacing Anthony Kennedy, who was long seen as a swing vote. It will leave the court more ideologically conservative.

The senators’ announcements capped another day of extraordinary drama in the Senate, as undecided lawmakers came forward with their decisions. On Friday morning, Flake said he was likely to vote to support Kavanaugh on Saturday unless something changed. Both Collins and Manchin supported Kavanaugh in a morning procedural vote but did not immediately reveal how they would ultimately decide. Of the swing votes, only Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, voted against even advancing the nomination, saying she made the decision to do so as she walked onto he floor.

“I believe we’re dealing with issues right now that are bigger than the nominee and how we ensure fairness and how our legislative and judicial branch can continue to be respected,” Murkowski said, calling it “the most difficult evaluation of a decision that I have ever had to make.”

Kavanaugh’s expected confirmation means a second conservative justice will have been seated by Trump, providing the president with a long-lasting victory. At 53, Kavanaugh could be on the high court for decades to come.

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When Trump nominated Kavanaugh earlier this summer, the battle lines were already drawn, with Republicans praising his credentials — an education at Yale and a 12-year stint on the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Democrats like Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, vowed to oppose the nomination from the outset, and framed it as a battle over issues like health care, voting rights and abortion.

Still, with Republicans holding a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate — and numerous Democrats up for reelection in states won by Trump, and thus more likely to support his nominee as a matter of political expedience — Kavanaugh’s nomination seemed likely to succeed. But everything changed in mid-September.

First, Ford accused Kavanaugh of drunkenly trying to remove her clothes and covering her mouth to stop her from screaming at a party in high school, some 35 years ago. Then, a classmate, Deborah Ramirez, said Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her at a party while the two were in college.

At a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford gave searing testimony about the night of her alleged attack, saying she could remember Kavanaugh’s laughter and the fear that he might suffocate her. It prompted other women to come forward with their own stories. Undecided senators were besieged by women who offered their accounts as victims of sexual assault in hopes of derailing the nomination.

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Kavanaugh hit back with forceful and sometimes tearful testimony of his own, angrily denying the allegations and pushing back against senators who wanted to know more about his drinking.

Even as some of Kavanaugh’s classmates said he drank far more than he admitted to during his sworn testimony, Trump and his Republican allies stuck by him. At a campaign event in Mississippi earlier this week, Trump appeared to make fun of Ford and the gaps in her memory about precisely where and when the alleged assault took place, and how she had gotten there.

Trump, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and the all-male Republican majority of the Judiciary Committee had endured mounting criticism for their handling of the Ford allegations. By Friday, though, all eyes were on Collins — a moderate, but more important for the party’s imagery, a woman.

A key procedural vote in the Senate on Kavanaugh passed, with the chamber voting 51-49 to move forward.
A key procedural vote in the Senate on Kavanaugh passed, with the chamber voting 51-49 to move forward.

Collins had spent hours on Thursday parsing the details of the FBI’s background check into Kavanaugh, which had been reopened at Flake’s request. On Friday, sitting at a desk on the Senate floor, Collins shuffled her papers and took two sips of water before she rose to speak.

McConnell turned his chair all the way around so he could watch her.

Collins compared the entire confirmation process to a “gutter-level political campaign.” She said she did not believe Kavanaugh would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that protected the right to abortion, nor that she thought he believed the president to be immune from prosecution, as Democrats have complained. And then she poked holes in Ford’s account of the sexual assault, saying no witness had corroborated her claim, and questioning why no one had come forward to say they drove her home from the party where it was alleged to have happened.

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As she wrapped up her 45-minute speech, Collins implored Kavanaugh to “lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court.” But the battle over Kavanaugh may only be beginning: Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, told The New York Times his party will investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh if Democrats retake the chamber in November.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood