Collins backs Kav, all but assuring confirmation

posted by By BURGESS EVERETT, ELANA SCHOR, ANDREW RESTUCCIA and JOHN BRESNAHAN - 

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh secured the 50 votes he needs to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, as Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins announced she would support him.

"I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court," Collins said of accusations against Kavanaugh. "I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) immediately announced he would support Kavanaugh as Collins's speech ended.

The Senate voted to advance Kavanaugh to a final vote mostly along party lines, though Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted "no" and Manchin voted "yes." Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) indicated after the vote that he would remain a yes on President Donald Trump's nominee "unless something big changed."

Even so, Kavanaugh's approval is not assured: Senators could conceivably vote differently on Saturday during an expected confirmation vote than they did on Friday.

Most senators sat at their desk as the dramatic roll call unfolded, with major suspense over where Murkowski, Manchin and Flake would land. Collins was the first swing vote to support Kavanaugh on the procedural roll call, quickly followed by Flake. Murkowski then inaudibly voted no, a jarring defection that left Republicans with no room for error.

After it was clear that Kavanaugh had the 50 votes needed to advance, Manchin became Kavanaugh's only Democratic supporter. Manchin, who left the chamber when the clerk called his name, came back into the chamber and voted in favor of Kavanaugh. His phone could be seen ringing and Manchin stared at it as the vote continued.

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McConnell appeared emotionless during the vote, betraying nothing of his confidence level moving forward. His deputies were cautiously optimistic but still uncertain and said Collins has not indicated how she will vote on the final roll call.

And Democrats weren't yet willing to wave the white flag even after Kavanaugh's initial triumph.

“This was a mistake. I don’t know. I think we’re going to have to let this vote settle. I think there’s going to be a lot of thought," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is relatively close to Murkowski and Collins.

The two moderate GOP women sat next to each other during the vote and sat almost motionless. As the vote began to wrap up, Collins and Murkowski chatted amiably, leaning toward each other as they spoke. The two both voted against proceeding to a vote to repeal Obamacare last year, as well as the final measure.

Murkowsi explained she didn't make up her mind until she walked into the vote on Friday.

“I believe Brett Kavanaugh is a good man,” she says. But he’s “not the right man for the court.”

Flake and Manchin said little to their colleagues during the vote, though Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) patted Manchin on the back at one point. Flake indicated he would support Kavanaugh on the final vote “unless something big changed. I don’t see what would."

"This is a difficult decision for everybody," Flake told reporters. Asked if Kavanaugh would be confirmed on Saturday, he said: "I think so."

Flake, Murkowski, Collins and Manchin were undecided going into the vote, having raised questions about sexual assault investigations facing Kavanaugh and demanding an FBI investigation into those charges.

And Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is set to fly to Montana for his daughter's wedding, which will occur on Saturday. A Kavanaugh supporter, Daines could be forced to return to D.C. immediately afterward if the Montana Republican is the deciding vote.

"We'll wait and see how this all unfolds," Daines said. "We have transportation arranged and we'll wait and see what happens." He said Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), a former tech executive, offered him the use of his private plane.

The suspense over Kavanaugh's fate has gripped the Senate for the past week, with security heightened and the chamber mired in tension that has at times turned highly personal. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday morning that he genuinely doesn’t know what the outcome of the vote will be.

GOP leaders have been speaking confidently about the outlook for Kavanaugh, who has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and excessive drinking while in high school and college. And though the outlook brightened on Friday morning, most Republicans sat stone-faced during the critical vote, only breaking into grins as it dawned on them that Kavanaugh's nomination would not fail on the procedural vote.

Senate Republican chiefs of staff were briefed on safety and security concerns related to the Kavanaugh vote on Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter. The Capitol Police's presentation was sober and serious, they said.

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Republican leaders on Thursday projected confidence after they said a supplemental FBI background check turned up no corroborating evidence to claims from Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her while they were both in high school.

White House officials have been keeping close tabs on the vote count throughout the process. A group of White House officials were stationed in Vice President Mike Pence’s Capitol Hill suite on Friday during the vote. Senior officials, including White House counsel Don McGahn, have been calling fence-sitting lawmakers and their staffs all week to answer questions and get updates on where key senators are leaning, according to two White House officials.

Trump himself has taken a more hands-off approach, instead largely communicating with his political allies, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the officials said.

The White House remains “cautiously optimistic” that Kavanaugh will be confirmed, according to one of the officials.

Kavanaugh’s Thursday Wall Street Journal op-ed was met with mixed reviews by White House officials, many of whom, along with the president himself, gushed over the judge’s fiery performance during last week’s hearing. Kavanaugh himself — not the White House — was the driving force behind the op-ed, one of the officials said, adding that the judge felt compelled to stress that he would be an ”even-keeled, open-minded [and] independent” justice after facing criticism for his tone.

As for Trump, White House aides described his mood as more frustrated than furious. The president has at times expressed annoyance that the process has dragged on, at one point directing some of his ire at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to one of the White House officials. But he has also come to believe that the episode will energize his conservative base ahead of the midterms.

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