One week after GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona called for a limited FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Senate moved the embattled nominee one step closer to the Supreme Court bench by a slim 51-49 vote margin. Friday's procedural vote will block a Democratic filibuster of the nominee.
The outcome of Saturday's final vote still hinges on approval from key moderates including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins of Maine. GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined Democrats on Friday to oppose the vote advancing.
Uncertainty over Kavanaugh's high court prospects rose Thursday afternoon after moderate Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is currently ranked as the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the upcoming November midterm elections, announced she would vote against him. Murkowski, a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights and who has been under intense pressure from Kavanaugh's opponents to vote against him, had expressed concern about whether the investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh has been adequate.
The confirmation roiled the partisan ranks of Congress and around the country from the day President Donald Trump announced the nomination that could slot Kavanaugh into the seat vacated this summer by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kavanaugh, a former high-level White House operative under President George W. Bush and key player in the special prosecution efforts against President Bill Clinton, was viewed as replacing Kennedy's key swing vote with a decidedly conservative one that would shift the high court to the right for decades to come.
Abortion rights groups and liberal advocacy groups warned he could potentially overturn or substantially diminish the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's legal right to seek an abortion as well as steer the bench against the Affordable Care Act if a 20-state lawsuit to halt Obamacare advances to the Supreme Court. Anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List appeared to agree but from the opposite view, pushing a massive grassroots campaign to pressure undecided senators to confirm him.
The fight was pitched into a bitter, highly personal war after a leak revealed that since July Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California had been sitting on an allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a woman at a high school party in the 1980s.
The accuser, professor Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday under questioning by a GOP prosecutor and Democratic senators from the committee. Kavanaugh testified just after. Democrats and Republicans almost immediately fell into their already-entrenched positions on the nominee.
The committee voted on the nomination the following day, but Flake said his final approval of Kavanaugh was contingent on a limited FBI probe into Ford's allegations. In the agreement brokered with key committee Democrats, Flake agreed the investigation could be limited to a week.
Late Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the first procedural vote would happen on Friday, teeing up the final confirmation vote. Early Thursday, the FBI report was delivered to the Senate for confidential viewing by GOP and Democratic senators who circulated in and out of a secure room throughout the day.
However, the report did little to mitigate the parties' feud over the confirmation as Republicans praised the findings as thorough and Democrats decried them as a sham.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor blasted the investigation as "belied by the pettiness of the Republican side and the White House," calling it part of a pattern of "limiting access to facts, limiting access to truth, limiting access to what the American people ought to know."
All 10 Judiciary Committee Democrats said in a statement that the documents of the FBI report "suggest this investigation was controlled and directed by the White House."
McConnell framed the Democrats' handling of the allegations and their reactions to the FBI investigation as political.
"What we know for sure is that the FBI report did not corroborate any of the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh," McConnell told reporters Thursday afternoon, adding that nothing the Republicans could do "would satisfy the Democrats."
The final vote is slated for Saturday afternoon.