A Republican-led committee approved US president Donald Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court on Friday by 11 votes to 10.
However, moderate Republican Senator Jeff Flake called for an FBI investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against the judge before a final Senate vote. Flake's dramatic intervention means a final vote on the nomination could be delayed for up to a week so that the mooted FBI investigation can be completed, if Republican Senate leaders agree to his demand. Democrats have called for an FBI inquiry, but Republicans oppose the move.
The committee, with tempers flaring on both sides, met the day after a fraught hearing into sexual misconduct allegations against Mr Kavanaugh that gripped the country, with university professor Christine Blasey Ford accusing him of sexual misconduct. Mr Kavanaugh denied the accusation.
“This country’s being ripped apart here,” Mr Flake told his fellow senators, “I think we can have a short pause. We ought to do what we can to make sure that we do all due diligence with a nomination this important.”
It is unclear at present if the investigation will take place. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s office had no immediate comment. The committee moved to advance the nomination 11-10 on party lines, with Trump’s fellow Republicans voting Yes and Democrats voting No.
“All I’ve said to Senator Flake is I would advocate for the position he took but I don’t control that,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the committee.
Just before the scheduled vote in the judiciary committee, Mr Flake left the committee room to talk to some Democrats, adding further turmoil to proceedings. During the delay, senators and aides could be seen in the committee room having hushed conversations, with some going back and forth to an anteroom of the committee chamber.
Earlier in the day Mr Flake, who had previously raised concerns about the allegations against Kavanaugh, said Ms Ford gave “compelling testimony”. But he added that Mr Kavanaugh provided “a persuasive response”.
Soon after Mr Flake made his announcement that he would vote for Mr Kavanaugh in the committee, the senator was confronted in an elevator while on his way to the committee meeting by two protesters who said they were sexual assault survivors.
“That’s what you’re telling all women in America – that they don’t matter, they should just keep it to themselves,” shouted one of the protesters at Mr Flake in an exchange aired by CNN.
“I need to go to my hearing. I’ve issued my statement,” replied Mr Flake .
The full Senate must confirm supreme court appointments.
One Republican, Senator John Kennedy, called Mr Kavanaugh’s confirmation process “an intergalactic freak show”.
As the committee, with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, set its vote, some Democrats left the room in protest. “What a railroad job,” said Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono.
It remained unclear if Republicans have the votes to confirm Mr Kavanaugh on the Senate floor. Republicans hold a slim Senate 51-49 majority, making the votes of two other so-far undecided Republican moderates crucial: Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.
President Trump said Senators Murkowski and Collins have to do what they think is right. Mr Trump said he would defer to Mr Grassley on whether to open an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against Mr Kavanaugh.
"I will be totally reliant on what Senator Grassley and the group decides to do," [about reopening the background investigation], said Mr Trump at the White House.
Mr Grassley said he found Thursday’s testimony from Ms Ford and Mr Kavanaugh “credible”. But he added, “there’s simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh a seat on the supreme court on the basis of evidence presented to us”.
The timing of the panel’s session gave committee members little time to review Thursday’s extraordinary testimony from Mr Kavanaugh and Ms Ford, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in 1982. Mr Kavanaugh forcefully denied the accusations and accused Democrats of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit”.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s senior Democrat, called Mr Kavanaugh’s remarks unseemly for a judicial nominee.
“This was someone who was aggressive and belligerent. I have never seen someone who wants to be elevated to the highest court in the country behave in that manner. In stark contrast, the person who testified yesterday and demonstrated a balanced temperament was Dr Ford,” said Ms Feinstein.
Another Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, noted that Mr Grassley had thanked Ms Ford for her bravery but nevertheless failed to back any further investigation.
“Where is the bravery in this room?” asked Ms Klobuchar. – Reuters