The US Senate on Friday narrowly approved moving to a final vote on President Donald Trump’s embattled Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, but his fate remained in the balance as key lawmakers appeared still undecided.
The Senate voted 51-49 to advance the nomination of the conservative jurist, who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct dating back to his teenage years, in the procedural cloture vote, setting up a final showdown on Saturday.
But the outcome remains uncertain after one Republican, Lisa Murkowski, defied her party and voted against moving ahead, while Democrat Joe Manchin cast his ballot in favor.
Republican Senator Susan Collins still appeared undecided, supporting the cloture vote but saying she would reveal her position on Kavanaugh, 53, on Friday afternoon.
President Donald Trump cheered the result of the cloture vote, which puts him a key step closer to a major political victory for conservatives.
“Very proud of the US Senate for voting ‘YES’ to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!” Trump tweeted.
Except for Murkowski and Manchin, the vote proceeded along party lines. To gain final approval Republicans can afford only one more defection in Saturday’s test.
If he wins confirmation, Kavanaugh — who has faced a bruising process which raised questions over his candor and partisan rhetoric, and his lifestyle as a young man — will seal a conservative majority on the nine-seat high court for years to come.
Trump took the brutal battle to a new stage earlier Friday when he dismissed female anti-Kavanaugh protesters who have cited their own experiences of sexual assault as “elevator screamers.”
The president claimed billionaire financier George Soros, a frequent target of conservatives, was behind their demonstrations.
“The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it!” he said on Twitter.
Republicans continued to reject sexual assault and abuse allegations against Kavanaugh from three women when they were students in the 1980s, and dismiss charges from Democrats that Kavanaugh repeatedly lied in Senate testimony about his background.
– Gripping political battle –
The confirmation process has gripped Washington and the nation, aggravating already deep political divisions with just weeks to go before mid-term congressional elections.
Among those closely watched is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic who is not running for re-election and has expressed concern about Kavanaugh.
On Friday he voted to advance the nominee, then told an NBC reporter that “unless something big changes,” he will vote yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
With Murkowski, the Republican who voted against cloture, telling reporters that Kavanaugh is a “good man” who perhaps is “not the right man for the court at this time,” that left all eyes on Republican Collins and Democrat Manchin.
Collins is expected to announce her decision on the Senate floor after 3:00 pm (1900 GMT).
If she is a yes, that gives Manchin political cover to do the same and not be the deciding vote.
Manchin faces extraordinary political pressure. He is up for re-election in West Virginia, a state Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.
On the Senate floor he waited until Flake, Collins and Murkowski had voted, then flashed a thumbs-up for his yes vote before sitting down by himself.
Another wrinkle about Saturday’s vote: Republican Senator Steve Daines was to fly home Friday to Montana for his daughter’s wedding, raising the prospect of Republicans losing a potentially vital yes vote.
But Daines said he spoke with Kavanaugh personally and assured him that “I will be back to vote yes this weekend if needed.”
Kavanaugh made a last-minute pitch for support in a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “I am an independent, impartial judge,” virtually unheard-of campaigning for a nominee to the high court.
Protesters returned outside the Capitol Friday morning, a day after 302 were arrested and charged with unlawfully demonstrating inside the Senate complex.
– ‘No to mob rule’
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley took to the Senate floor to accuse unnamed “left-wing dark money groups” of engineering an alleged Democratic political plot to defeat Kavanaugh.
“The resistance that has existed since the day after the 2016 election is centered right here on Capitol Hill,” he said. “I hope we can say no to mob rule by voting to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”
Trump’s reference to Soros, who has supported pro-democracy movements around the world and the US Democratic Party for years, appeared to aim at inciting more support and anger from the president’s conservative Christian base.
The Jewish billionaire is frequently described by arch-conservatives as a behind-the-scenes operator driving liberal and progressive movements — criticisms that have raised counter-accusations of anti-Semitism.
But Democrats continued Friday to argue that there had been too little effort made to investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh — especially that of Christine Blasey Ford, who says a drunken Kavanaugh tried to rape her in 1982.
On Thursday the FBI released summary results of a six-day, last-minute review of the allegations, which Kavanaugh’s Senate backers said found no corroborating evidence.