It doesn’t take much reading between the lines anymore to decipher that top Senate Republicans want to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh no matter what his accuser (or accusers) tell Congress on Thursday.
After a second accuser shared her story in the New Yorker accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, a fiery Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went on the Senate floor Monday and promised that the chamber will vote on sending Kavanaugh to the court “in the near future.”
He’s not guaranteeing an outcome, but you need only look at what McConnell told social conservatives Friday to understand what he — the senator with the most power over this process — wants to happen. “Kavanaugh will be on the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said, to loud applause.
The wheels are in motion to make that happen. It looks as if the Senate Judiciary Committee could hear Kavanaugh and the original accuser, Christine Blasey Ford — and perhaps a second accuser, Deborah Ramirez — testify Thursday. Then it could vote by Friday on Kavanaugh’s nomination, which could set up a full Senate vote by Monday or Tuesday. Capitol Hill reporters tracking all this don’t think that Kavanaugh, at this time, has the 50 or 51 votes he needs to get on the court, but Senate Republican leaders seem to be gambling that he will after Thursday.
Right now, key undecided votes among the Republicans are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee. If just two of these senators break off and red-state Senate Democrats also decline to cross party lines for Kavanaugh, the vote will fail.
Republican leaders could be at risk of pushing some of those on-the-fence lawmakers away with their overtly pro-Kavanaugh strategy. In an interview with the New York Times, Murkowski warned her colleagues to take Thursday’s hearing seriously: "We are now in a place where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified,” she said. “It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” She’s also notably started calling for an FBI investigation as her other Republican colleagues appear to prejudge Ford.
Top Republican senators on the committee evidently have already made up their minds. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters Monday that Ramirez’s accusation that Kavanaugh exposed his genitals to her in college were “phony.” He also said Ford is “sincerely wrong.”
In an interview Sunday on Fox News before the second accusation was made public, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was asked whether there was anything Ford could say that would persuade him to vote against Kavanaugh. He said he wants to listen to her, but added: “What am I supposed to do? Go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?”
If anything, Republicans' positions have hardened after the second accuser came out. Ramirez acknowledges there are gaps in her memory and the New Yorker could not find a corroborating eyewitness. That seems to have allowed some Republicans to loop in her accusation with Ford’s, which is much more credible in the eyes of a former sex crimes prosecutor.
And McConnell on Monday accused Democrats of trying to “smear” Kavanaugh, which is a disingenuous claim. While you can argue with how Democrats decided to approach sharing the first accuser’s account with the FBI to crack open all this, there is no evidence that Democrats are making up these women’s stories or digging them up and forcing them to talk.
Then you have Kavanaugh himself, who is perhaps the most defiant of all. He is refusing to bow out, which some Senate Republicans cited as a reason they are going forward with his nomination: Why push out a nominee who says he’s innocent?
But there’s a big difference between giving Kavanaugh and his accusers a real chance to share their opposing stories and simply pretending to be impartial. Republicans are leaning heavily toward the latter.
Ford’s team certainly feels that way. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), her legal team said it is “finding it difficult to reconcile” his promise of a “fair and credible process” with everything we just outlined above.
Republicans have no good choices. Proceed with Kavanaugh’s nomination and they risk coming across as insensitive to the broader #MeToo movement at a time when polls suggest female voters are favoring Democrats. But their more immediate problem is they could fail to fill a Supreme Court vacancy before November’s midterm elections, in which their congressional majorities could stand or fall based on how enthusiastic their base is.
Apparently the best of bad options is to “plow right through,” in McConnell’s own words, Kavanaugh’s nomination. It may get them a Supreme Court justice, but they can be accused of brushing off a serious accusation to get it done.
This post has been updated with Murkowski’s interview to the New York Times.