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Republicans to tread carefully in questioning Kavanaugh and Ford

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh
Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Republicans head into Thursday’s hearing with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and California professor Christine Blasey Ford with hopes of shoring up his confirmation for a quick Senate vote.

But just as important, they’ll be trying to avoid political embarrassment for themselves.

It will be perhaps the most dramatic congressional standoff since the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearing, and Republicans are eager to avoid the public backlash that followed that proceeding. A podium of older, white, male senators grilled a young black woman for hours about embarrassing personal and sexual details, and then many dismissed her story as a lie.

Adding to the pressure this time are additional allegations from two other women claiming sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in the 1980s. And it’s all coming in the middle of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.

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To avoid part of the minefield, all 11 male GOP senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee (there are no women) are expected to give their allotted time to an outside female lawyer, Rachel Mitchell, who has been hired to do their questioning.

It’s an uncommon move for lawmakers, who are typically eager to grab the spotlight.

Democrats quickly pounced, saying that GOP committee members are merely scared to ask questions on their own.

“They clearly are not confident in their ability to get through questioning without creating embarrassing moments for themselves,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), calling Mitchell a “ringer.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t help his party much by explaining Wednesday that they had hired a “female assistant” to handle the questioning.

Mitchell is on leave from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, where she works in a sex crimes and family violence bureau.

Republicans defended their use of Mitchell as an attempt to turn down the temperature in the hearing room and make Ford more comfortable.

“The goal is to depoliticize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns,” Grassley said. He was referring to possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on the panel, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). But Grassley has just as much reason to worry about what some of his own members might say, such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, 84, who is remembered for his aggressive questioning of Hill on the same panel in 1991.

Hatch on Wednesday said he does not plan to ask questions himself but said that could change.

One Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak freely, acknowledged that some lawmakers risk coming across as insensitive or out of touch.

“I think most men — and particularly men my age — have no idea how much this environment has changed just in the last couple of years and you can look pretty foolish,” he said.

Republican leaders also plan to hold tighter reins on the hearing. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has limited questions to five minutes per senator, which will cap the overall length of the event. He said he is doing so at Ford’s request.

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He also has refused Ford’s request for an FBI probe and additional witnesses at the hearing, both of which were afforded to Hill in 1991.

Ford alleges that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party while they were both in high school in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.

Kavanaugh’s future on the Supreme Court rests on how well he does in the hearing. Several undecided GOP senators who are not on the committee have cleared their calendars to watch. Republicans are projecting confidence going into the hearing. A committee vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been tentatively scheduled for Friday and full Senate votes on Saturday and Tuesday.

Democrats face risk, too, mainly that they overplay their hand by going after Kavanaugh so aggressively that he elicits sympathy.

Whitehouse downplayed that risk, citing the deposition signed and released Wednesday by a third accuser, Julie Swetnick. There are “some really devastating allegations that have been made, in this case by a women under oath who loses her job and security clearance if she’s found to not be telling the truth, so the stakes for her … are very very high.”

Democratic lawmakers plan to do their questioning themselves, chiding the GOP for handing over their senatorial duties.

“We’re elected to advise and consent,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Part of my job is to ask questions. I’m in no way going to concede or accede my role as a United States senator.”

Democrats plan to query Kavanaugh on the allegations brought by Ford as well as by two other women. They also are expected to ask him about his drinking habits.

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“His simple denial is not the end to the questioning,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

But they worry that they only have five minutes for questions.

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that, short of overwhelming proof brought by Kavanaugh or Ford, the public — as well as key senators — are likely to base their opinion on which of the two appears more credible.

To that end, Democrats are already framing the hearing as stacked against Ford.

“The set-up for her that has been orchestrated is that she either has to refuse to testify, in which case she’ll be attacked and criticized for that, or she comes in and testifies without the basic courtesy any prosecutor or lawyer would give any victim, which is a sincere and thorough effort to investigate their claims,” said Whitehouse.

Republicans argue that Ford’s allegation — as well as the claims of the other women — are part of a “smear campaign” designed to block Kavanaugh from the court.

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

The latest from Washington »

jennifer.haberkorn@latimes.com

@jenhab


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