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Senate narrowly approves Brett Kavanaugh to Supreme Court, cementing conservative majority

Senate narrowly approves Brett Kavanaugh to Supreme Court, cementing conservative majority
Anti-Kavanaugh protesters confront a pro-Kavanaugh demonstrator as he tries to interrupt their march along Constitution Avenue outside the U.S. Capitol on Friday. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

The Senate on Saturday narrowly confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, securing a historic conservative majority on the nation’s highest court after a tumultuous confirmation process marked by partisan rancor, tearful testimony and tense allegations of sexual assault and bad faith.

Kavanaugh was confirmed 50 to 48, the thinnest margin for any Supreme Court nominee in the modern era. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who opposed the nomination, voted “present” to balance out a fellow Republican who could not attend but wanted to vote “yes.”

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The angry protests that shadowed Kavanaugh’s confirmation process continued until the bitter end, interrupting the Senate vote several times. Vice President Mike Pence, who also serves as president of the Senate, directed police to remove shouting protesters from the gallery.

Several hundred protesters gathered in front of the Supreme Court after the vote, chanting past nightfall after police forced them off the broad stone steps. Many hugged. Some wept.

President Trump, who called Kavanaugh after the vote, signed the commission appointing him to the court while flying to Topeka, Kan., for a political rally. Kavanaugh was sworn in later Saturday.

The 53-year-old conservative jurist can join the high court as early as Tuesday, when it next meets, and formally replace the swing vote of retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on issues as broad as abortion, gay rights and the environment.

“I think he’s going to go down as a totally brilliant Supreme Court justice for many years,” Trump told reporters in Topeka. “Many years. He was chosen for the reason of his temperament, his incredible past, his outstanding years on the court.”

He added, “And we’re very honored that he was able to withstand this horrible, horrible attack by the Democrats. It’s a horrible attack that nobody should have to go through.”

Kavanaugh’s confirmation — once considered certain, only to be upended over the last three weeks by decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct — marks a major political victory for Trump and his supporters, one likely to resonate in next month’s midterm election.

Both parties bemoaned a broken confirmation process — albeit for different reasons — that could have a lasting impact on the Senate and further inflame a nation polarized by tribal politics amid the cultural reckoning of the #MeToo era.

Both Republicans and Democrats insisted that the tumult would motivate their voters to turn out for the Nov. 6 election — with both sides citing the anti-Kavanaugh protests that have roiled Capitol Hill and far beyond as a sign of change to come.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) credited the protests in the Capitol, at lawmakers’ homes, in restaurants and at airports for unifying Republican lawmakers and the GOP voter base. He said the anger at the demonstrations would rouse Republicans to vote next month.

“We’ve been wondering how we can fire up our own people because we know the Democrats are energized going into an off-year election,” McConnell told the Los Angeles Times before the vote Saturday.

“Nothing unifies and energizes Republicans like a court fight. So the good news about it from a political point of view is it has allowed us to put what I think is our single biggest accomplishment — that is, the transformation of the court system in the course of this Congress — front and center going into the election a month from now,” he said.

Democrats said the protests showed the indignation not just at Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford when both were teenagers, but at his fiery and strikingly partisan Sept. 27 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nominee shouted, wept and angrily interrupted Democratic senators, giving rise to questions about his impartiality and temperament.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sought to leverage the anger, urging the “many millions who are outraged by what happened here” to vote next month. “If you believe Dr. Ford and other brave women who came forward and you want to vindicate their sacrifice, vote," he said on the Senate floor.

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McConnell said he held a crucial procedural vote Friday without knowing how it would end. He and Trump had agreed that if the Kavanaugh nomination failed, they had to quickly move on to another appointment.

“If this nomination was not successful, we were going to go with a second one and finish it before the end of this calendar year,” he said. He said he wanted to hold a vote to give senators a chance to weigh in on the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.

For McConnell and the GOP, Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a reminder of why the party embraced Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign: the chance to make lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.

For lawmakers of both parties, the brutal confirmation process marked a low point in the Senate’s modern record of considering Supreme Court nominees.

“Everybody is losing in this situation,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who last year defeated Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign was undermined by multiple allegations of sexual abuse. “The biggest losers are the people sitting over there in that court. This is a partisan Supreme Court and will be, and they’re the ones who are going to have to try to make it nonpartisan because we can’t do it.”

Murkowski — the only Republican to oppose Kavanaugh in the procedural vote — warned that emotions on Capitol Hill are raw, calling her decision painful and the toughest of her political career.

“It was hard reconciling my heart and my head this week,” she told reporters after explaining her opposition on the Senate floor.

Murkowski voted present Saturday so that Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) didn’t have to leave his daughter’s wedding in Montana to vote yes. The vote margin of two would remain the same.

Murkowski said Kavanaugh had eased her concerns over how he would consider cases on healthcare, abortion rights and Alaska Native issues.

But she ultimately opposed his confirmation because of worries about his judicial independence and temperament after his emotional and passionate testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had furiously denied Ford’s allegations that he had pinned her to a bed and covered her mouth to stop her from screaming while sexually assaulting her at a party when they were both high school students in 1982.

Much of the Republican fury targeted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. She first received word of Ford’s allegations on July 30 and kept them confidential at her constituent’s request. When reporters learned of the allegation, Ford decided to come forward.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have called for an investigation, suggesting Feinstein or her staff may have been responsible for leaking the information. Feinstein, who is campaigning for reelection next month, has strongly denied it.

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On Saturday, McConnell echoed the call for a review. “The initial conclusion really ought to be reached over there in the [Judiciary] Committee,” he said. “I’d be happy to take a look at whatever they recommend.”

Feinstein and other Democrats complained that a supplemental FBI investigation on Kavanaugh’s background failed to contact all the witnesses, and that the vote was called before all the facts were known about the nominee’s past.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Feinstein said Saturday.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia was the only Democrat to break party ranks to support the nominee, saying that he hopes Kavanaugh doesn’t allow the partisan nature of his confirmation to follow him to the bench.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he wants to return to the tradition of Supreme Court nominees getting nearly unanimous votes in the Senate — such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in 1993 or Stephen Breyer the following year.

Those votes followed the bitter 1991 battle over Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who angrily denied Anita Hill’s allegations that he sexually harassed her in the workplace. Thomas ultimately was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48, but the dispute turned sexual misconduct into a still-evolving political fault line.

When asked what he will do to change the atmosphere, Grassley admitted he didn’t know.

The acrimony around Kavanaugh’s nomination could linger in the Senate, particularly around judicial nominations.

It will have an impact “for a little while, but there aren’t that many of us,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the GOP leadership.

“The Senate’s not very big,” he said. “It’s a matter of figuring out how you can find what you agree with somebody on and move forward on that. There are clearly some hard feelings here, but this is not a place you get by not being fairly willing to roll with the punches. I think we’ll move on, but I think it will take a while.”

4:20 p.m.: This story was updated with Kavanaugh being sworn in.

3:58 p.m.: This story was updated with President Trump’s comments.

3:03 p.m.: This story was updated with details and reaction to the confirmation vote.

1 p.m.: This story was updated with the Senate vote

This story first posted at 12:45 p.m.

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