Senate panel schedules Kavanaugh vote for Friday

The move comes after Republicans hire a female attorney to question Kavanaugh's accuser.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court on Friday morning, fewer than 24 hours after Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford appear before the panel to discuss Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her more than 30 years ago.

According to committee rules, Judiciary must schedule a committee vote three days in advance. But the committee said the vote will only proceed if a "majority of the members" of the 21-member committee are ready to vote on Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can bring Kavanaugh to the floor whether the nominee gets a favorable or unfavorable recommendation. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is undecided on Kavanaugh's nomination and is the key swing vote on the panel; Flake has not voted in the Senate this week and has not commented on his current thinking about Kavanaugh.

“For Republicans to schedule a Friday vote on Brett Kavanaugh today, two days before Dr. Blasey Ford has had a chance to tell her story, is outrageous," said Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking member. “First Republicans demanded Dr. Blasey Ford testify immediately. Now Republicans don’t even need to hear her before they move ahead with a vote."

Senate Republicans hired a female attorney to use as a questioner of Ford at Thursday's high-stakes hearing on a sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh but are declining to release her name. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told POLITICO on Tuesday that "we aren't announcing the name for her safety."

Asked if Republicans have received any indication of threats to the attorney they're preparing to use, Grassley said: "I don’t know, but I guess we’re just being cautious."

Republicans say only Grassley knows the identity of the new counsel and isn’t telling anyone. The GOP’s secrecy immediately came under fire from Senate Democrats, who mockingly pointed out that all 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are men.

“No one can find that out, it’s a mystery,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday afternoon of the questioner. “It’s interesting that our Republican colleagues, who want to rush this [nomination] through, are afraid to question Dr. Ford themselves and have to put a surrogate there.”

The back-and-forth over the GOP’s female counsel was part of a day of bitter partisan sniping as both sides prepared for Thursday’s blockbuster hearing. And it could get only more heated. As the committee pressed ahead with a vote on Kavanaugh, an attorney representing Deborah Ramirez charged that Republicans on the panel "have refused to meet all scheduled appointments" to discuss her allegation against the judge further.

"Ms. Ramirez is ready to swear to the FBI under penalty of perjury. Why won’t the Senate Judiciary Committee welcome that?" Colorado-based attorney John Clune tweeted on Tuesday.

President Donald Trump and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders began the day by angrily lashing out at Feinstein and other Democrats over their handling of the Ford allegations. Schumer responded by attacking Kavanaugh’s credibility, suggesting the federal appeals court judge may have lied during his confirmation hearings.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Kavanaugh, the future of the Supreme Court, and both parties as they head into the midterm elections. Republicans, though, clearly have more to lose. A failure to get Kavanaugh’s nomination through the Senate confirmation process would bring heavy criticism from Trump and the conservative base, and would leave Republicans scrambling to push through a different nominee during a lame-duck session, which carries big political risks.

With that in mind, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – described by one Republican as “fired up” – was already warning his colleagues that he would keep the Senate in all weekend in order to have a final confirmation vote on Kavanaugh by early next week. The new Supreme Court term starts on Oct. 1.

“I’m confident we’re going to win, I’m confident that he will be confirmed in the very near future,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

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McConnell has been lobbying undecided GOP senators to back Kavanaugh. He met for 45 minutes on Tuesday afternoon with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), a critical undecided GOP moderate. Murkowski declined to say what message she delivered to the GOP leader, refusing to answer questions about whether she will vote for or against Kavanaugh.

“We’re going to have this hearing on Thursday and that’s the next step. I think it’s a very important step,” Murkowski said.

Other undecided Republicans – including Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Flake — also say they want to see Ford and Kavanaugh testify on Thursday before making a decision.

The issue of who will lead the Republican questioning of Ford and Kavanaugh during that session is a critical one. Republicans are haunted by the images of male senators grilling Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. The backlash from women over the treatment of Hill was enormous, and Republicans are fearful of the optics of doing this all again 40 days before the midterm elections.

In a personal letter on Monday, Grassley told Ford, a 51-year-old California-based professor, that he is "committed to fair and respectful treatment of you" during Thursday's make-or-break hearing.

Although Ford's attorney wrote to Grassley on Monday night that his staff "still has not responded to a number of outstanding questions" about the hearing, including more details on how the female attorney would be engaged to speak on behalf of Judiciary Republicans' all-male roster, the Iowa Republican has made clear that he views the hearing as locked in.

Heeding Ford's desire to avoid a "circus-like environment," Grassley has agreed to limit the press presence in the hearing room and give her security protection via the U.S. Capitol Police. "I don't know what else we can do," Grassley said, adding that "I don't know of any problem" remaining.

However, even before Ford comes to Capitol Hill, Democrats slammed the GOP leadership’s plan to keep the Senate in session to confirm Kavanaugh as proof that Republicans had already made up their mind to ignore Ford’s accusations.

Republicans, however, said the nominee’s confirmation shouldn’t be pushed back further.

"There’s no reason to delay this more, unless something new comes out of the hearing on Thursday," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. "As you can tell, people are coming out of the woodwork making incredible, uncorroborated allegations and I think you can just expect that kind of nonsense to continue."

Trump on Tuesday mocked claims by Ramirez, who told the New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself while they were both students at Yale University more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh has denied Ramirez's allegations, and other news organization have not been able to corroborate her claim.

During an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly with Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, Trump launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and called the allegations against him “unsubstantiated.”

"Charges come up from 36 years ago that are totally unsubstantiated? I mean, you as watching this, as the president of a great country - Colombia - you must say, ‘How is this possible?’ Thirty-six years ago? Nobody ever knew about it? Nobody ever heard about it? And now a new charge comes up,” Trump said.

“And [Ramirez] said well it might not be him and there were gaps and she said she was totally inebriated and she was all messed up. And she doesn’t know it was him, but it might’ve been him. ‘Oh gee, let’s not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that.’ This is a con-game being played by the Democrats.”

With Kavanaugh’s nomination in trouble, the White House P.R. offensive is designed to shift the blame for the debacle onto Democrats while trying to shore up GOP support. Yet right now, Kavanaugh doesn’t have the votes to be confirmed, Republicans privately admit.

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