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Kavanaugh drama rattles GOP support

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said the panel could vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination as early as Friday. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Senate Republicans have gone from confidently predicting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to a new message: It all comes down to Thursday.

The GOP is staking Kavanaugh’s prospects to his hearing later this week, when he and Christine Blasey Ford will testify publicly about her allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school more than 30 years ago. It’s a shift that puts some of the onus on Kavanaugh to convince a growing number of wary senators whether his word is more credible than hers in the battle over the high court seat.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is warning his colleagues publicly and privately that his plan is to hold a floor vote on Kavanaugh no matter what happens in the Judiciary Committee, possibly as soon as early next week. Though Kavanaugh currently lacks the votes to be confirmed, the GOP leader is signaling that he will hold the vote anyway to force all 100 senators to go on record and put maximum pressure on red state Democrats that the GOP is hoping to defeat this fall, Republican senators said.

Whether that vote will be successful remains in doubt, the senators said.

“Once we get a chance to have a hearing, then we’ll figure out where we go from there. I think our members are taking this very seriously,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican. “Most of our members are going to wait ‘til Thursday. … Thursday is kind of the key day in this.”

“Let’s wait and see what happens on Thursday. I am very supportive of Judge Kavanaugh, but I want to hear her testimony,” added Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

The tension inside the Senate GOP Conference was palpable on Monday after a weekend filled with new sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, which came amid furious negotiations between the Judiciary Committee and Ford’s legal team over her appearance.

Some pro-Kavanaugh hard-liners like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas want the GOP to forge ahead and jam Kavanaugh through despite the allegations from Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her in college. They and others worry about the precedent that would be set for future nominees if the GOP abandons Kavanaugh.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said the panel could vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination as early as Friday, although he noted no final decision has been made to do so yet. Such a plan signals that Kavanaugh will get a vote in committee regardless of what happens Thursday, and McConnell can bring the nominee to the floor even if he receives an unfavorable recommendation in committee.

“I’m ready to move forward after the hearing as soon as possible,” Graham declared. “I have no doubt something happened to Ms. Ford. I really don’t know her. What I’ve got before me is unknown time, unknown location, no credible verification. Unless that changes, that’s where I’m at.”

Hatch called the Ramirez story “phony” and said Ford is “sincerely wrong,” predicting the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote later this week. “It’s time to get down to business,” Hatch said.

For McConnell and his leadership team, the road ahead on Kavanaugh is fraught with political peril. The GOP leader does not want to be seen as doing anything to undercut Kavanaugh, but his message has subtly shifted as well. On Friday, McConnell confidently predicted his caucus would “plow right through” the sexual assault allegation and put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court; by Monday, McConnell defended Kavanaugh against a “despicable” smear campaign but committed only to a floor vote in the “near future.”

President Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh

Ford sent Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley a letter saying McConnell’s fiery speech Monday was “inconsistent” with the committee’s appeal toward her.

“[McConnell] thinks he’ll have the votes,” said one Republican senator who speaks to the majority leader regularly. “But he just wants members to know it’s going to the floor.”

A second Republican senator wondered aloud whether the GOP leaders could weather the storm until Thursday’s hearing: “Can they sustain this for three more days?”

Even a failed vote could pay dividends for Republicans, GOP leaders privately say, by forcing Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp to take a position on Kavanaugh. All three have been targeted to support Kavanaugh after supporting Justice Neil Gorsuch, and all hail from deep red states and are up for reelection.

“We’ve talked about Manchin and Donnelly,” said a third GOP senator, who is close to leadership.

This Republican also said The New Yorker story on Ramirez — who claims Kavanaugh exposed himself to her while they were both students at Yale University — has actually helped the nominee with some GOP lawmakers and will “energize the base of Trump voters in a way that hasn’t happened up until now.” The New York Times reported that it could not verify Ramirez’s allegations, and the White House and Senate Republicans used that fact to launch their own political counterattack, referring to The New Yorker report as a “smear” and “character assassination.”

Brett Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh

Yet Republican moderates and two retiring senators have taken a far more deliberative stance on Kavanaugh following the Ford and Ramirez allegations, and they remain the critical bloc of votes to watch for the majority party.

GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are all preaching a thorough process and saying they have an open mind. Collins said the Judiciary Committee needs to interview Ramirez “under oath.”

“I’m eager for the hearing to take place this Thursday and hear from both Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford,” Collins said. “I have not made a decision.”

“As with any allegation out there, it is our responsibility to look into it and treat allegations with the serious consideration they deserve,” Murkowski said.

And it’s not just those four Republicans who are open to being convinced either way. Several other GOP senators said on Monday that their votes will be determined by how Ford and Kavanaugh perform before the committee.

That raises the stakes even more: While Kavanaugh could win over undecided senators with strong performance, he could also experience more defections if he stumbles.

Asked whether he was still a yes vote, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said: “I want to see what happens in the hearing on Thursday. I can only vote based on the information before me.”

The past 10 days seem to have rattled even some of Kavanaugh’s most ardent supporters. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was working as Kavanaugh’s sherpa to get him confirmed before being appointed to the Senate after the death of John McCain, but he didn’t want to talk about Kavanaugh at all on Monday as the nomination hung in the balance.

“I don’t have any stand. I’m still working really hard to figure out where to go and how to get there,” said Kyl, who used to be the No. 2 Republican. Asked whether something in the Judiciary hearing on Thursday could change his mind about Kavanaugh, he replied: “I don’t know. I’m not going to be in the Thursday hearing, I’m not on the Judiciary Committee.”

Elana Schor and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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