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Kavanaugh accuser's offer to testify about alleged sexual assault puts key Republicans in a bind

Kavanaugh accuser's offer to testify about alleged sexual assault puts key Republicans in a bind
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. He has denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a girl when they were both in high school. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

After days of silence about whether she would appear, California professor Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday that she is willing to testify next week about her allegations of a decades-old sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The offer, made in a letter from her attorney to the committee, could put plans to arrange the high-stakes public hearing back on track, though it came with some unspecified conditions that GOP senators may not accept. For one, she ruled out a hearing on Monday, when Republicans have scheduled the proceeding.

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Her letter in effect kicked the ball back into Republicans’ court. Publicly, GOP lawmakers have grumbled in recent days that Ford had failed to respond to their invitation to appear Monday, but privately many worried she might accept. A public hearing could make Kavanaugh’s confirmation — already in question — more difficult, particularly if Ford’s story is credible and compelling.

Now Republican leaders will have to decide whether to give Ford a few more days, or stick to their demand that the hearing take place on Monday. Late Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said that his staff had discussed the issue with Ford’s attorney earlier in the day and that he would consult with his fellow committee members about the next move.

Ford’s offer also increased the pressure on several key moderates — particularly GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — whose votes will probably be needed to put Kavanaugh on the high court. Both were already facing heavy pressure from abortion rights groups concerned that Kavanaugh, a staunch conservative and longtime GOP attorney, might vote to restrict access to abortion. The sexual assault allegation, which the nominee has denied, has upended his seemingly sure-bet confirmation and only increased the stakes for the key lawmakers.

Ford, who says the attack took place when she and Kavanaugh were in high school in the early 1980s, said she would only testify under terms that ensure her safety and “are fair.” She did not specify what “fair” would require, leaving open the possibility that talks could reach a stalemate.

“As you are aware, she has been receiving death threats, which have been reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and she and her family have been forced out of their home,” Ford’s attorney Debra Katz wrote. “She wishes to testify, provided that we can agree on terms that are fair and which ensure her safety. A hearing on Monday is not possible and the committee’s insistence that it occur then is arbitrary in any event.”

Senators scheduled the Monday hearing without consulting Ford.

Invoking security concerns will make it hard for the committee to reject Ford’s request to delay the hearing a few days, said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

“That is a reasonable accommodation that if Republicans are unwilling to make, they are going to be dragged through the mud,” Hudak said.

In a separate letter Thursday, Kavanaugh seemed to urge the committee to stick with Monday’s hearing, saying he had hoped to have it even earlier.

“I continue to want a hearing as soon as possible, so that I can clear my name,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Since the moment I first heard this allegation, I have categorically and unequivocally denied it. I remain committed to defending my integrity.”

Neither Collins nor Murkowski — whose views other GOP senators will be watching closely — reacted immediately to Ford’s latest offer. Earlier in the week Collins joined other GOP lawmakers in urging Ford to testify Monday, either privately or publicly. Collins also drew fire from liberal groups for saying it was “not fair” to Kavanaugh if Ford did not testify.

In some previous allegations of sexual misconduct, both senators have sided with the accusers, condemning then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and then-candidate Donald Trump, when an “Access Hollywood” video surfaced of him talking about grabbing women by their genitals as he wished.

Collins and Murkowski have said the allegations against Kavanaugh need to be taken seriously, but they’ve also indicated they need more information before deciding how to vote.

They are considered swing votes on Kavanaugh because they both support abortion rights. Democrats have made the future of the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision a key part of their opposition to the nominee. Also, Collins and Murkowski have been willing to buck their party on key issues, such as their opposition to Republicans’ efforts last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

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Demand Justice, a liberal judicial advocacy group, plans to launch television ads in Alaska and Maine on Friday featuring a female narrator reciting Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh, while groping her, covered her mouth to muffle her shouts for help. The ad closes by asking whether the GOP senators will “listen to her now.”

The ad is also set to run in Nevada to target Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a difficult reelection this fall, and in Colorado, where Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is likely to face a tough reelection in 2020.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, threatened to fight against Collins’ 2020 reelection if she votes for Kavanaugh. “She will never again be able to claim the mantle of an ally to women or survivors, and that is not something that women will ever forget,” said Ilyse Hogue, the group’s president.

Activists have raised more than $1 million to give to Collins’ 2020 opponent if she votes for Kavanaugh, a move that the Maine Republican likened to an illegal political bribe.

Murkowski came under pressure to oppose Kavanaugh in her home state Thursday when Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, both independents, announced that they oppose the nominee.

Collins and Murkowski are generally the two most moderate Republicans in a Senate conference that largely votes together. They are also two of just six female GOP senators.

Pressure has been building on Collins and Murkowski to vote no for weeks, with a flood of phone calls and emails and protesters outside their offices.

But even opponents of Kavanaugh said it was unfair to put added pressure on the two senators because of their gender.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America Political Communications Director Erica Sackin said that Collins and Murkowski are getting pressure because they are vocal supporters of women’s rights, but that “they are definitely not our only focus.… We are targeting members of the committee. Really we’ve been targeting all senators.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) declined to comment specifically on Collins and Murkowski, saying the pressure should be placed on all senators, “but particularly the Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

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During a news conference Thursday to voice support for Ford, Hirono also predicted Republicans’ treatment of the professor could backfire in the midterm election if voters think she is being mistreated.

“I hope the women of America — as well as the men, by the way, because why should it just be the women who care about fair treatment? It’s men. It’s all of America,” she said. “I think there’s a lot more attention being paid to how this whole thing is being handled.”

6:25 p.m.: The story was updated with Sen. Grassley’s statement.

4:50 p.m.: The story was updated with Kavanaugh’s statement and background about Collins and Murkowski.

The story was originally published at 12:20 p.m.

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