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In fierce speech for Kavanaugh, Collins sheds her swing-vote image

These are the key moments of Sen. Susan Collins's (R-Maine) Senate floor speech, before she vowed to vote for Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court Oct. 5. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

For weeks, Sen. Susan M. Collins was seen inside the Capitol and across the country as a tortured fence-sitter who could sink Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But over the course of 44 minutes Friday, she revealed herself as a resolute defender of President Trump’s nominee, delivering a floor speech that cinched Kavanaugh’s confirmation and delighted even conservatives who frequently grumble over the Maine Republican’s shows of independence.

Collins’s speech, which concluded at 3:51 p.m., was met with a roar of GOP applause. It was, at times, a tribute to the “Me Too” movement, a simultaneous indictment and defense of her Senate colleagues, and a broadside against the pointed Democratic attacks on Kavanaugh.

But it was mainly a robust defense of Kavanaugh’s judicial record and a minute dissection of the sexual misconduct allegations levied against him by Christine Blasey Ford, Debbie Ramirez and Julie Swetnick.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down how four senators played an outsized role in the Senate’s consideration of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

It laid bare that Collins, far from being racked with doubt, had long been inclined to confirm Kavanaugh. By the time she declared, “I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court,” 31 minutes into the speech, she had long since removed any doubt about how she would ultimately vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly rose to pay tribute, comparing Collins to former Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, an early critic of Joseph McCarthy and a personal hero to Collins.

“I’ve not heard a better speech in my time here, and I’ve been here a while,” McConnell gushed. “It was absolutely inspirational.”

Former President George H.W. Bush hailed Collins for her “political courage and class . . . and her principled leadership.”

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate chamber and beyond fumed.

“History will judge this decision harshly,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. A former Obama administration official, Susan E. Rice, mused on Twitter about challenging Collins in 2020.

Collins played coy about Kavanaugh’s nomination for months, joining Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) under the media spotlight as one of the likeliest GOP turncoats. The high drama remained Friday morning, as Collins cast a vote to close debate on Kavanaugh but would not publicly say whether she would vote to confirm him, saying she would make that announcement later in the day.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.), the second- and third-ranking party leaders, talked privately to Collins on the floor in the morning before she ducked into a private room to take a phone call — a scene reminiscent of when Collins joined with Murkowski and the late John McCain in July 2017 to tank a GOP health care bill. Later, she would have lunch with McConnell in the private Senate dining room.

But the swing-vote shoe did not quite fit in this case: Not only has Collins voted to confirm every Supreme Court justice she has voted on, from Republican and Democratic presidents alike, she also voiced tentative support for Kavanaugh at crucial moments.

When Democrats trained on his potential hostility to abortion rights — which Collins supports — she spoke up to say that she did not believe Kavanaugh would overturn Roe. v. Wade. When activist groups gathered fundraising pledges for a potential reelection opponent, contingent on her vote, she suggested it was illegal.

Later, when the sexual assault allegations emerged Kavanaugh, Collins remained mum as the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the FBI investigated. On Thursday, as Democrats sought to cast doubt on the limited scope of the FBI probe, she told reporters it was “very thorough” after hearing a briefing on its findings.

Even so, her emphatic endorsement of Kavanaugh on Friday contained surprises. Collins dismissed the opposition to Kavanaugh as “a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign” and blasted “dark money” liberal groups who “whip their followers into a frenzy by spreading misrepresentations and outright falsehoods” about Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence.

She blasted the allegations of Swetnick, brought forth by lawyer Michael Avenatti, that suggested Kavanaugh was complicit in “gang rapes” during high school — claims that came without corroboration but were lent some credence by Democrats who called for them to be officially investigated.

“That such an allegation can find its way into the Supreme Court confirmation process is a stark reminder about why the presumption of innocence is so ingrained in our American consciousness,” Collins said.

Extending that logic to Ford’s better-founded claims, she went on to dissect the account that the California professor gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. While calling Ford’s testimony “sincere, painful and compelling,” Collins not only noted that none of those Ford claimed to have been present corroborated her account, but poked further holes in Ford’s 36-year-old memory of the alleged attack.

“The professor testified that although she does not remember how she got home that evening, she knew that because of the distance she would have needed a ride,” Collins said. “Yet not a single person has come forward to say that they were the one who drove her home or were in the car with her that night.”

“Professor Ford also indicated that even though she left that small gathering of six or so people abruptly, and without saying goodbye,” she added, “none of them called her the next day or ever to ask why she left, is she okay? Not even her closest friend.”

Moments later, Collins praised the “Me Too” movement as “overdue” and recalled how she had spoken to many sexual assault survivors in recent weeks: “Some were friends that I had known for decades, yet with the exception of one woman who had confided in me years ago, I had no idea that they had been the victims of sexual attacks.”

She went on to blast those Democrats who had played a role in making Ford’s allegations public against her own wishes.

“You have taken a survivor who was not only entitled to your respect but who also trusted you to protect her, and you have sacrificed her well-being in a misguided attempt to win whatever political crusade you think you are fighting,” she said.

Throughout, Collins had a rapt audience of fellow Republicans. McConnell swiveled his chair at his desk so he could watch Collins, standing two rows behind him, during her entire speech.

Three fellow Republican women — Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), each of whom previously voiced support for Kavanaugh — took seats directly behind Collins, putting them in the C-SPAN camera shot as she spoke.

After Collins was recognized on the floor, protesters stood up in the gallery above her, yelling, “Vote no! Show up for Maine women!” Collins kept her eyes down until the protesters were escorted out of the chamber.

After she finished her speech, McConnell led the standing ovation then went over and shook her hand. Several other Republicans did the same; some offered hugs.

Outside, her colleagues left the chamber, expressing relief that the wrenching confirmation was finally reaching an end.

“I thought it was beautiful,” Ernst said of Collins’s speech as she stepped on an elevator. “Very proud of the diligence she put into that.”

Paul Kane and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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