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GOP leaders all but guarantee Kavanaugh confirmation

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave away very little about his feelings while he spoke to reporters. He was joined by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (left to right): Sens. Thom Tillis, Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republican leaders insist they don’t speak for the three GOP holdouts. But they’re sure talking like they’ve already won the battle over Brett Kavanaugh.

The confidence was on open display as the party’s chief vote-counter, speaking at a press conference Thursday, all but guaranteed that Kavanaugh will clear a procedural hurdle on Friday and be confirmed a day later. He and other top Republicans had reason to cheer, after Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine gave encouraging early remarks about the FBI’s much-anticipated Kavanaugh report, enough to seal the confirmation if their statements translate into votes.

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Most Republicans view that FBI inquiry as essentially exonerating Kavanaugh of two women’s allegations of sexual misconduct. They don’t want to get out ahead of Collins, Flake, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), but believe the trio’s main concerns about the nominee have now been addressed.

Standing alongside fellow Judiciary Committee members, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) referred to the judge’s confirmation as a foregone conclusion. He told reporters the Senate would put an end to “this circus-like atmosphere” this weekend when it votes “to finally confirm this good man to this important position.”

Asked in a later interview if he has the votes, Cornyn said only: “I’m optimistic. I’m going to let senators make their own announcements, but I’m optimistic we’ll get there.”

“There were two stipulations by some of our members. One was they wanted to hear from Dr. Ford. And secondly, they wanted to do this supplemental background investigation. We did that. It turned up no new information,” Cornyn added, describing himself as “very pleased” with the reaction on Thursday.

“The three that matter? Well, I’m sensing we’re in a good place. This supplemental investigation checked all the boxes and satisfied the concerns they had about talking to more people,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Cornyn’s presumptive successor as party whip. “I feel pretty good about where we are.” And asked how he was feeling, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave nothing away: “OK,” he said as he strode away from the press conference.

Republicans might be getting a tad ahead of themselves, given the independent streaks that the undecided Republicans have flashed in the past.

Flake is a frequent critic of President Donald Trump’s and seems to be thinking increasingly about his legacy as he enters retirement. Collins and Murkowski are the last true GOP moderates in the caucus, supportive of abortion rights and opposed to repealing Obamacare.

But GOP senators said that the handful of remaining undecided senators are concerned with the misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh – not where he stands on presidential power or Roe v. Wade.

“I generally feel that it’s painting a pretty positive picture, that these are unsubstantiated allegations,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who spent three hours going over the FBI’s Kavanaugh report in a special room in the Senate basement set aside for viewing classified material. “There’s certainly no concerns with his judicial philosophy. There’s no concerns about any of the opinions he’s written. And now it’s just a sober review of the facts.”

Flake and Collins both expressed confidence to reporters in the breadth of the FBI’s probe, which included interviews with nine witnesses and hundreds of tips the bureau had received. They attended a GOP briefing on the FBI report, then came back to read it themselves.

Chris Coons

Both also attended a party lunch on Thursday and were quiet, declining to tell their colleagues where they would come down, according to attendees who say Flake is keeping his head down as he goes through the report, trying to minimize any drama.

The Arizonan asked questions during the FBI briefing that were not much different than those posed by other senators, according to a GOP colleague who was observing him closely. Flake, that Republican senator predicted, “will be OK” with Kavanaugh in the end.

Collins has been shadowed by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a fellow centrist Republican who knows Kavanaugh personally, for much of the past two days. She’s bristled at the Democratic attacks against her in recent days, leading some Republicans to believe that she’s being pushed toward Kavanaugh and not away from him.

Murkowski has been more circumspect, essentially declining to comment until she’s finished reading the FBI report. She did not attend the Republican lunch on Thursday.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also remains undecided, and Republicans are hopeful he will give Kavanaugh his only Democratic vote. Manchin, Murkowski, Collins and Flake may wait until Friday morning to announce their decision, according to senators and aides.

All three have been increasingly hard to locate as the spotlight on them intensifies. Flake is exiting the Capitol on the House side sometimes, using a series of hidden passages and tunnels to escape media hordes. Murkowski and Collins are often ensconced in their Capitol offices rather than in the Senate office buildings, which are open to the public and have become ground zero for confrontations with protestors.

“I’m not going to judge how my four remaining colleagues are going to vote,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in an interview, adding that “I think we recognize” that Collins, Flake, and Murkowski are “going through a tough time” based on the heightened security surrounding them as the Kavanaugh vote nears.

Demonstrators protest near the U.S. Capitol

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who has bitterly tangled with his committee’s Democrats throughout the confirmation process, said that Collins, Murkowski, and Flake “ought to feel good about” the outcome of the FBI’s inquiry because they were involved in the process of shaping it.

Grassley also noted that “I haven’t heard from four Republicans” on Kavanaugh. The fourth GOP holdout appears to be Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), although spokesman James Wegmann said Thursday that the Nebraskan “has long been and remains at lean-yes.”

“He’s spent well over 150 hours doing his homework, and he pledged to fully review the information in the new FBI report before announcing his vote,” Wegmann said.

Publicly, Democrats raged against an FBI process that they say was unfairly restricted by a White House intent on getting Kavanaugh through. But privately, some Democrats acknowledged a creeping pessimism about a Supreme Court battle they were always waging against long odds.

Even Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-N.D.) announcement of a “no” vote, citing “young girls and women across our country” watching the outcome of Ford’s testimony, carried a ring of fatalism. Heitkamp took a stand as a recent poll showed her down by double-digits to her GOP challenger, and she claimed she would’ve “gone the other way” and backed Kavanaugh had she truly been motivated by politics.

Republicans said they couldn’t think of any reason why Flake, Murkowski, or Collins would vote against Kavanaugh after reading the FBI’s interviews with nine individuals connected to the allegations against him.

“Each person makes up their own mind. But right now I think it would be very difficult to identify information that would suggest any corroboration to new accusations that have been made. It is not there,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.

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