Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday night started the clock for Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, with a preliminary vote set for Friday and a final vote on Saturday.
The move came as the FBI completed its report into sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. Senators are expected to begin reading the report Thursday, under tight security and strict rules.
Kavanaugh’s fate remains unclear because three GOP Republicans are undecided: Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Several Democrats are also said to be wavering.
McConnell needs at least two of three undecided Republicans, assuming all Senate Democrats oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Kavanaugh was initially set to face a Senate vote earlier this week, but the three Republicans abruptly joined Democrats on Friday in demanding an FBI inquiry into allegations by California professor Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when both were in high school in 1982. He has denied the allegations.
President Trump gave the FBI a week to look into the matter and said publicly that the law enforcement agency had free rein. But Democrats accused the administration of restricting the probe behind the scenes.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday criticized the FBI for not speaking with either Kavanaugh or Ford. She also complained that the FBI did not talk to witnesses identified by Deborah Ramirez, who also accused Kavanaugh of assault in the 1980s.
The lack of interviews raises "serious concerns that this is not a credible investigation and begs the question: What other restrictions has the White House placed on the FBI?" Feinstein said. “Last week’s hearing is no substitute for FBI interviews, especially when you consider the tenor of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony."
The White House hasn't said what, if any, restrictions were placed on the FBI probe. Ford's lawyers confirmed as of Wednesday afternoon that she had not been contacted by the FBI.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he would have expected the FBI to use the entire week it was afforded.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W.V.), one of the few Democrats who remain undecided, said the FBI report would be instrumental in his decision.
"I'm going to read whatever they've got," Manchin said Wednesday. "I want to see the first thing first. Before I start jumping in, let me just read what they have and we'll go from there."
Once the report — which is typically confidential — is given to the Senate, all senators will be able to access it in a secure room. Two Senate staff members say the current plan is to have separate times for Democrats and Republicans.
There is debate on Capitol Hill as to whether all or some of the report should be made public. A key part of Flake’s drive to push for an FBI probe was to have a more transparent public process. Other Republicans have voiced similar concern.
“I’m of the view that whatever could be made public should be, but that would be well outside the normal way these things are treated,” said Sen. Roy Bunt (R-Mo.). McConnell said Tuesday that the report should not become public.
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent a letter on Wednesday to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the committee, calling for “bipartisan ground rules” for how the FBI report can be discussed, expressing concern that there will be an effort to "publicly mischaracterize or selectively leak" its contents.
The Democrats pointed to a Tuesday tweet from the committee's Republican staff saying that there was "never a whiff of ANY issue" involving alcohol abuse or sexual misbehavior in six previous FBI background checks on Kavanaugh. "While we are limited in what we can say about this background investigation in a public setting, we are compelled to state for the record that there is information" in the tweet "that is not accurate," the Democrats wrote in their letter without providing details.
Republicans called the Democrats’ letter “baseless innuendo.”
The temperature around the nomination rose Tuesday evening after Trump mocked Ford, a Palo Alto University professor, during a campaign rally. He mimicked her dramatic testimony last week, emphasizing her inability to remember certain details and suggesting she drank more than she claimed.
"What neighborhood was it in? 'I don’t know.' Where’s the house? 'I don’t know. Upstairs. Downstairs. I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember,'" Trump said, as the Mississippi audience laughed and applauded.
All three undecided Republicans condemned Trump’s remarks. Flake called them “appalling,” while Murkowski said it was “unacceptable” and Collins calling the president’s actions “wrong.”
The White House insisted Trump was merely restating facts, although Ford had conclusively said the assault happened upstairs and remembered many other details vividly.
Asked if Trump was worried that his comments would jeopardize votes from swing Republican senators, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said no.
"I don't think so. The president is very confident in his nominee, as he's stated time and time again, and we expect the Senate to vote, and we hope they do that soon,” she said.
The FBI's supplemental investigation began Friday night after an official request from the Senate Judiciary Committee and an order from the White House.
Agents spoke with Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s who Ford said was in the room when she was assaulted. He had previously submitted a statement denying the incident but had resisted appearing before the committee.
Also interviewed was Tim Gaudette, a high school classmate of Kavanaugh. According to Kavanaugh's 1982 calendar, he hosted a party that included several people that Ford identified as being present on the night she was assaulted.
Agents were also apparently willing to let the statements made under the penalty of perjury by Ford and Kavanaugh to the committee to stand without further questioning.