Republican plans to vote next week on embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh derailed Friday after key undecided GOP senators joined Democrats in calling for a one-week delay to allow for an FBI probe into the sexual assault allegations against him.
The surprise move by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), quickly joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), meant the divisive battle over President Trump’s pick for the high court will linger for at least a few more days.
“I think it would be proper to delay the floor vote for up to, but no more than, one week,” Flake said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing after huddling with Democrats.
Flake noted the deep divisions that had been exposed by Thursday’s powerful testimony from Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford, who said she was “100%” certain that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh emotionally and strongly denied the allegation.
"This country is being ripped apart here, and we've got to make sure that we do due diligence,” said Flake, who is retiring from the Senate in January and has frequently butted heads with Trump.
Despite Flake’s new position, the Judiciary Committee approved Kavanaugh’s nomination Friday on a party-line vote, 11 to 10, with strong objections from Democrats. Flake cast one of the votes in support of the nomination with the understanding that the final vote on the Senate floor would be delayed.
The GOP-led committee later endorsed Flake’s call for an FBI background check, reversing its earlier position that one was not needed and would not reveal anything new.
“The Senate Judiciary Committee will request that the administration instruct the FBI to conduct a supplemental FBI background investigation with respect to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” read a statement from the committee. “The supplemental FBI background investigation would be limited to current credible allegations against the nominee and must be completed no later than one week from today.”
Trump, who just days ago dismissed the allegations as a Democratic “con,” said in a statement that he had ordered the FBI to look into the matter. “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week,” he said.
The FBI moved immediately given the short time frame. By Friday night, agents had sought to schedule an interview with one of two other women who, after Blasey Ford went public, made accusations of their own about alleged assaults dating to Kavanaugh’s days in high school and at Yale University, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation who asked to remain unidentified given the sensitivity of the matter.
FBI investigators contacted the attorneys for the woman and asked to interview her “as early as tonight,” according to one of the sources. Her attorneys countered with a later time, but the interview could occur this weekend, the sources said.
The about-face by Senate Republicans and Trump was a validation of Democrats’ strategy at Thursday’s hearing, when they made the lack of an FBI probe one of their key complaints. Democratic senators repeatedly pushed Kavanaugh to join their effort to demand a probe, but the nominee refused, saying that decision was up to the committee. Ford requested the FBI investigation.
The Senate late Friday agreed to start debate on Kavanaugh, a procedural hurdle that didn’t require a roll-call vote under an agreement between Republicans and Democrats.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will not get the final Senate vote he was hoping to have by Tuesday.
Conservatives blasted the delay.
“Shame on the United States Senate if it puts political interest before its constitutional responsibility," said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). "It is time to put the Democrats’ partisan delays behind us. It is time to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.”
With their slim 51-49 Senate majority, Republicans cannot afford to lose more than one of their members, assuming all Democrats and independents vote against Kavanaugh.
Asked about the day’s developments, Trump said Friday, “I’m going to let the Senate handle that. They’ll make their decisions. I’m sure it will all be very good.”
The president also praised Kavanaugh and, for the first time, Ford. “I thought her testimony was very compelling, and she looks like a very fine woman,” Trump said.
Both Kavanaugh and Ford said they would cooperate with the investigation. “I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate,” Kavanaugh said in a statement.
Debra S. Katz, an attorney for Ford, said she welcomed the move, but added, “No artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation."
Thursday’s hearing laid bare the deeply divisive politics at stake in Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Democrats accused the GOP of rushing through a nominee under a “dark cloud of suspicion [that] will forever change both the Senate and our nation’s highest court,” according to committee member Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Republicans blasted Democrats for a “smear campaign” against the nominee, and committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), too, warned it would permanently change the way the Senate treats judicial nominees.
Earlier in the day — before he called for the FBI probe — Flake had said he would vote to approve Kavanaugh. He said he left Thursday’s hearing with “as much doubt as certainty.” But, “I believe that the Constitution’s provisions of fairness and due process apply here as well. I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”
But after coming under intense criticism in the Capitol from protesters, including some who confronted him outside an elevator saying they were victims of sexual assault, Flake appeared to have second thoughts. During the committee hearing, Flake abruptly left with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to huddle outside the room.
After a flurry of negotiations with Democrats, Flake said he would vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination at the committee level, but not on the full Senate floor until after an FBI probe.
“It has been remarkable over the past week, the number of people who saw Dr. Ford yesterday and were emboldened to come out and say it happened to them,” he told reporters later. “I’ve heard from friends, close friends, who I had no idea. I think that’s important, and people out there need to know we’ve taken every measure within reason to make sure this process is worthy of this institution.”
Flake also said he's open to voting no on the nomination. "You bet — that’s why we’re doing the extended investigation."
Other key undecided senators endorsed the short delay, including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
Meanwhile, a key undecided Democrat — Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana — said he would oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The move by Donnelly, who supported Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch, further increased the partisan tone of Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. It also increases the pressure on key Republican holdouts to support the nomination if it is to be successful on the Senate floor.
“I have deep reservations about Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to this lifetime position,” Donnelly said, echoing calls from other Democrats for the FBI to investigate Ford’s allegation. “Only 113 people have ever served on the Supreme Court, and I believe that we must do our level best to protect its sanctity.”
Staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.