WASHINGTON — The move by GOP senators and the White House to halt a floor vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for an FBI probe of sexual misconduct claims against him was more than a stunning reversal.
It also represented the political reality that if Republicans stayed on course to install Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court by next week without the FBI vetting, his tenure would forever be stained by the allegations — and by Republicans’ failure to ask the nation’s top investigatory agency to get involved.
“This country is being ripped apart,” Sen. Jeff Flake told the Senate Judiciary Committee as he proposed the delay. “We’ve got to make sure that we do due diligence.”
But by pausing for one week to allow for the probe, which lawmakers said would be “limited in scope,” Republicans are still likely — perhaps more likely, if the FBI investigation fails to produce smoking gun evidence of the claims against Kavanaugh — to have enough votes to confirm him. It also gives cover to wavering Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
And it staves off the potentially catastrophic political optics of the move to “plow right through,” in the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the process of giving Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court in a manner that appeared in no way to be aimed at achieving a just result rather than a political win.
With just over a month until crucial midterm elections that will determine which party controls both chambers of Congress, and with the #MeToo movement galvanizing women voters, that was a risk Republicans couldn’t afford to take. The risk grew exponentially after Thursday’s testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, who told lawmakers she was certain that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.
That peril for the GOP was crystallized yesterday in a moment, caught by cameras and broadcast live on televisions across the country, when sexual assault survivors cornered Flake in an elevator after he announced his intention to back Kavanaugh, but before the committee vote.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Maria Gallagher shouted at Flake. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter and that you’re going to let people who do these things into power!”
Moments later, a visibly troubled Flake changed course, huddled with Democratic colleague and friend Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, and crafted a plan to force the hands of McConnell and President Trump.
It worked — the day ended with McConnell agreeing to delay the vote and the White House authorizing the FBI to get involved — something Donald Trump had been loath to do.
But in the end, it may have been their only choice.
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