Brett Kavanaugh is expected to be confirmed as a US supreme court justice this weekend after Republican senator Susan Collins said she would endorse him.
Ms Collins joined senator Jeff Flake of Arizona in announcing on Friday that she would vote in favour of Mr Kavanaugh, ensuring that 50 members of the 100-member chamber will vote to confirm his nomination.
Minutes after Ms Collins announced her decision, Democrat senator Joe Manchin announced he would also vote in favour of Mr Kavanaugh, delivering the 51 votes necessary to secure his confirmation. He was greeted by shouts of "shame on you" as he announced his decision in the Senate building.
Mr Manchin is seeking re-election in West Virginia next month in a state that voted for US president Donald Trump, and has faced pressure from voters to endorse the Republican nominee for the court.
Only one Republican – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – broke with her party and said that she would not vote for Mr Kavanaugh, who has been nominated by Mr Trump to fill the vacancy on the supreme court. She said she believed that Mr Kavanaugh was a "good man" but "not the right man for the court at this time".
Mr Kavanaugh's confirmation has been delayed by allegations against him of past sexual misconduct, made by three women. One of them, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate judiciary committee last week, before Mr Kavanaugh delivered an angry rebuttal of her claim that he sexually assaulted her when they were both high school students.
There had been expectations that Ms Collins would not support Mr Kavanaugh. Earlier on Friday, she had voted to move ahead with his confirmation ballot, but she cast doubt over her ultimate intentions when she announced that she would make a statement later in the day.
Ultimately, Ms Collins delivered a lengthy defence of Mr Kavanaugh’s suitability for the supreme court post. Lauding his professional experience as a judge, she said he was remarkably committed to supporting women in the legal profession, and was “more of a centrist than some of his critics maintain”.
She also said she believed Mr Kavanaugh would respect the principle of legal precedent in the case of Roe V Wade, the supreme court judgment that legalised abortion.
Noting that senators were now evaluating whether or not Mr Kavanaugh committed sexual assault and lied about it, she said that there was a lack of corroborating evidence supporting Dr Blasey Ford’s allegations..
“I found her testimony to be sincere, painful and compelling. I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life. Nevertheless, the four witnesses she named could not corroborate any of the events of that evening gathering where she said the assault occurred,” she said.
She said that while the Senate confirmation process was not a legal trial, “certain legal principles of due process, presumption of innocence and fairness bear on my thinking and I cannot abandon them”.
Her statement on the Senate floor capped another dramatic day on Capitol Hill over Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Earlier on Friday, the Senate voted by 51 to 49 to end debate on the nomination and move ahead with a full vote.
The razor-thin margin in the chamber underlined the stark divisions that Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination has stoked since allegations emerged of sexual misconduct.
The Senate is now expected to vote on Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination on Saturday. Senate rules, which allow for 30 hours of debate after “cloture” is invoked, means that a vote can take place as early as Saturday afternoon.
Republicans are facing a further logistical problem as senator Steve Daines is due to attend his daughter's wedding in Montana on Saturday. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell could hold the vote open into Sunday to accommodate Mr Daines, or could instead ask vice-president Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.
Should Mr Kavanaugh be appointed to the court, his confirmation would complete the second successful supreme court nomination by Mr Trump.
His appointment is expected to tilt the political hue of the highest court in the land to the right for decades to come.
Earlier in the day, Mr Trump tweeted after the initial procedural vote. “Very proud of the US Senate for voting “YES” to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!”