WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted on Friday to move forward Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual misconduct that further inflamed a bitter partisan fight about the judge, but a few lawmakers could still derail his confirmation.
Lawmakers backed President Donald Trump’s nominee Kavanaugh by 51 to 49 in a procedural vote that moved the Republican-controlled Senate toward a definitive decision, likely to take place on Saturday.
Confirming Kavanaugh to the lifetime post would hand Trump a clear victory and tip the balance on the court to a 5-4 majority in favor of conservatives in possible legal battles ahead over contentious issues such as abortion rights, immigration, and Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the U.S. military.
The weeks-long drama over Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, has gripped the country and could still take more twists – depending on the thinking of a handful of wavering senators in a chamber where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold just a razor-thin majority.
One of them, Republican Susan Collins, was due to announce at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Friday which way she would go in the final vote. Another, Republican Lisa Murkowski said she had not made up her mind on her final vote.
Senator Jeff Flake, one of the few Republicans who expressed doubts about Kavanaugh, said he would back the judge unless something big changed, MSNBC reported.
A lone Democrat, Joe Manchin, voted in favor of advancing the process on Friday morning, but had not yet stated his position on the final vote.
The Kavanaugh fight has riveted Americans just weeks before Nov. 6 elections in which Democrats are trying to take control of Congress from the Republicans.
What was already a sharply partisan battle became an intense political drama when university professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school in Maryland in 1982. Two other women also made accusations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in the 1980s.
He denied the allegations.
Trump, who has made appointing conservative judges a major plank of his presidency, tweeted his approval for the Senate vote on Friday, saying, “Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting “YES” to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!”
NOT OVER YET
Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership, said he was trying to persuade wavering Republican senators.
“Probably the next important step is when Senator Collins speaks this afternoon at 3 o’clock,” he said.
Further complicating matters for the Republican leadership, Senator Steve Daines was set to be at his daughter’s wedding on Saturday and has said he will not miss the ceremony. That could require holding the vote open to give Daines time to return to Washington from Montana.
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, meaning that if all Senate Democrats oppose Kavanaugh, Trump cannot afford to lose more than one Republican vote for his nominee, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.
Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee was broadcast live on television last Thursday and captured the attention of millions watching.
In an angry rebuttal later that day, Kavanaugh said the accusations were part of a “political hit” by Democrats.
His nomination became a flashpoint in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. Trump mocked Ford on Tuesday during a political rally in Mississippi, further angering Democrats and women campaigning for an end to sexual violence.
Trump, himself accused by numerous women during the 2016 presidential election of sexual misconduct, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that an FBI report showed that the allegations against Kavanaugh were “totally uncorroborated.”
The FBI sent Congress documents detailing additional interviews about Kavanaugh that the agency conducted at the request of some Republican and Democratic senators.
While the documents have not been made public, Republicans said they did not back up sexual assault allegations by Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California.
Similarly, Republicans said the FBI found nobody to support assault claims by Deborah Ramirez, who was a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University in the 1980s.
Democrats called the FBI report a whitewash and said the White House placed constraints on the FBI, which did not speak to many potential witnesses.
Reporting by Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Ginger Gibson, David Alexander, Lisa Lambert and Kevin Drawbaugh; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry