WASHINGTON — The Senate Saturday narrowly confirmed Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, capping a tumultuous confirmation process marked by partisan rancor, tearful testimony and allegations of sexual assault and bad faith.
Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48-1, the narrowest margin in modern history. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who opposed the nomination, voted present to balance out a fellow Republican who could not attend but wanted to vote “yes.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation – once considered certain, only to be upended by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct over the past three weeks – is a major political victory for President Donald Trump and his Republican backers, who are on the cusp of cementing a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court.
Both parties bemoaned a broken confirmation process – albeit for different reasons – that could have a lasting effect on the Senate and further inflame a nation already polarized by tribal politics amid the cultural reckoning of the #MeToo era.
The loss has demoralized Democrats, with angry protesters on Capitol Hill promising revenge at the ballot box on Nov. 6 and beyond. Many cited not just the alleged sexual assault, but also Kavanaugh’s Sept. 27 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he shouted, wept and angrily interrupted Democratic senators, giving rise to questions about his impartiality and temperament.
But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., credited the protests in the Capitol, at lawmakers’ homes, in restaurants and at airports for unifying Republican lawmakers and the party’s voter base. He said the demonstrations had helped bolster support for Kavanaugh, and will energize Republican voters in next month’s election.
“We’ve been wondering how we can fire up our own people because we know the Democrats are energized going into an off-year election,” McConnell said before the vote Saturday.
“Nothing unifies and energizes Republicans like a court fight. So the good news about it from a political point of view is it has allowed us to put what I think is our single biggest accomplishment –– that is, the transformation of the court system in the course of this Congress –– front and center going into the election a month from now,” he said.
McConnell said he held the procedural vote Friday without knowing how it would end. He and Trump had agreed that if the vote went against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, they had to quickly move on to another nominee.
“If this nomination was not successful, we were going to go with a second one and finish it before the end of this calendar year,” he said. He said he wanted to hold a vote to give senators a chance to weigh in on the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
For McConnell and the GOP, Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a reminder of why the party embraced Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign: the chance to make lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court and cement a 5-4 conservative majority.
But for Democrats and some Republicans, the brutal confirmation process marked a low point in the Senate’s modern record of considering Supreme Court nominees.
“Everybody is losing in this situation,” said Sen. Doug Jones. D-Ala., who last year defeated Roy Moore, whose campaign was undermined by multiple allegations of sexual abuse. “The biggest losers are the people sitting over there in that court. This is a partisan Supreme Court and will be and they’re the ones who are going to have to try to make it nonpartisan because we can’t do it.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – the only Republican to oppose Kavanaugh in the procedural vote – warned that emotions on Capitol Hill are raw, calling her decision painful and the toughest of her political career.
“It was hard reconciling my heart and my head this week,” she said after explaining her opposition on the Senate floor.
Murkowski voted present Saturday so Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. didn’t have to leave his daughter’s wedding in Montana to vote yes. The vote margin of two remained the same.
Murkowski said Kavanaugh had eased her concerns over how he would consider cases on health care, abortion rights and Alaska native issues.
But she ultimately opposed his confirmation because of worries about his judicial independence and temperament after his emotional and passionate testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had furiously denied allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a University of Palo Alto professor, that he had pinned her to a bed and covered her mouth to stop her from screaming at a party when they were both high school students in 1982.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he wants to return to the tradition of Supreme Court nominees getting nearly unanimous votes in the Senate – such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in 1993 or Stephen Breyer the following year.
Those votes followed the bitter 1991 battle over Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who angrily denied allegations by Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her in the workplace. Thomas ultimately was confirmed by a vote of 52-48 but the dispute turned sexual misconduct into a political fault line for the first time.
When asked what he will do to change the atmosphere, Grassley admitted he didn’t know.
Democrats accused Republicans of rushing the vote on Kavanaugh, saying a supplemental FBI investigation was limited in scope and time.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Among Democrats, only Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia broke ranks to support the nominee, saying that he hopes Kavanaugh doesn’t allow the partisan nature of his confirmation to follow him to the bench.
The acrimony around Kavanaugh’s nomination could linger in the Senate, particularly around judicial nominations.
It will have an impact “for a little while but there aren’t that many of us,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership.
“The Senate’s not very big. It’s a matter of figuring out how you can find what you agree with somebody on and move forward on that. There are clearly some hard feelings here but this is not a place you get by not being fairly willing to roll with the punches. I think we’ll move on but I think it will take a while.”
The process has led to a renewed debate over whether Democrats should have eliminated the 60-vote threshold filibuster for many presidential nominees in 2013. Republicans last year went further, eliminating it for Supreme Court nominees to clear the way for Trump’s first appointment to the bench, Neil M. Gorsuch.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is retiring this year, was upset when the filibuster was eliminated in 2013 but said there is no going back now. He blamed senators for using the filibuster too much.