Flake delays but hasn't derailed Kavanaugh's confirmation – yet

The Arizona Republican voted for the confirmation to advance to the Senate, but on the condition that the vote be delayed while the FBI investigate.

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After a tense, fraught and at times confusing meeting, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Friday to move the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second Supreme Court pick, to the floor of the Senate for a vote. But the vote came with a caveat.

Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator who is retiring at the end of his term and who has at times been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, said that his vote to proceed came with a condition: that the vote on the Senate floor be delayed by a week in order for the FBI to investigate the allegations into Kavanaugh, who is facing at least three accusations of sexual misconduct.

On Thursday, in a bombshell hearing that gripped the nation, one of those accusers, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Judiciary Committee. Later that day, Kavanaugh gave a tearful and hectoring testimony as he denied the allegations against him.

On Friday, the Judiciary Committee met to decide whether to move Kavanaugh’s nomination to the main body of the Senate despite the mounting allegations against him. But the meeting became tense after Flake left the chamber, tapping Democrat Chris Coons, with whom Flake has long been a close friend, to follow him.

For almost an hour, nobody seemed to know what was happening. Senators got up and left in small groups, came back, left again. Almost all of the Democrats left the chamber. Then most of the Republicans. You could have played the hearing on fast-motion with the Benny Hill theme over it.

Asked by a reporter across the room whether Flake had flipped, Lindsey Graham just shrugged. For a while, confusion reigned. When the ranking Democrat on the committee Dianne Feinstein returned, chairman Chuck Grassley leaned in and the two talked intensely for a while.

Then, suddenly, everything happened at once; Grassley recognised Flake for a personal speech, and Flake explained that he was voting in favour of moving Kavanaugh out of the committee only on the condition that the FBI be given a week to investigate the allegations against him. “This country's being ripped apart here, and we've got to make sure we do due diligence,” Flake said.

Here’s why this is important. The Republican majority in the Senate is razor-thin, and while Vice-President Mike Pence could break a tie if Flake alone breaks with his party, it is likely that several other GOP senators - Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski among them - might join Flake if he breaks ranks, effectively sinking the nomination. These three senators have all now joined Flake in calling for a weeklong delay to allow for the FBI investigation.

This battle is by no means over. Kavanaugh has passed the committee stage now, and it is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not Grassley, who decides exactly when the vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation will come to the floor. 

But as Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar told reporters as they left the chamber: “It’s better than where we were before.”

“Let’s leave it at that,” she added.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.