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Pressure builds on key senators as Kavanaugh vote is delayed 1 week

Supreme Court demonstration, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo: Leandra Bernstein, SBG)

Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court will hang in the balance for at least one more week after a dramatic proposal from Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of a handful of senators whose vote will determine the next Supreme Court Justice.

As the Judiciary Committee was about to vote, Flake told his colleagues he would only approve sending Kavanaugh's nomination to the Senate floor on the condition that the vote is postponed for "not more than one week." That would allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation time to look into Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party 36 years ago.

President Donald Trump issued a statement Friday afternoon agreeing to the condition. "I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file," Trump said. "As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week."

During that time, the political pressure will continue building as constituents, well-funded advocacy networks and lawmakers themselves try to shore up victory for their side.

Flake's proposal came as a shock to senators on both sides of the aisle. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would "advocate for" Flake's position as did ranking Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. The scheduling of the final vote will be determined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Earlier this week, McConnell said he intended to call a procedural vote as early as Saturday at 1 a.m., setting in place a timeline for the Senate to cast a final vote by Tuesday. If McConnell sticks to that timeline, he risks losing Flake's vote and an unknown number of other Republicans sympathetic to his position.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who strongly defended Kavanaugh during the Thursday hearing, indicated his support for delaying the final confirmation from the practical standpoint of the vote count.

"Well, the last time I looked, you need 50 votes," he told reporters. "And somebody's got to explain this to Trump! I guess that'll be my job."

The president previously opposed reopening a background investigation into his nominee, saying earlier this week that "there was nothing to investigate." Trump's decision to reopen the background investigation will avoid an immediate disaster while also allowing time for Kavanaugh's opponents to regroup.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., warned that an FBI investigation authorized by the White House "has to be real and penetrating" and "cannot be a show or a charade."

It is unclear what the FBI investigation will produce and how it will help or harm Kavanaugh's prospects. For Republican leaders and the White House to secure Kavanaugh's confirmation, they can only afford to lose one vote. If they win over two undecided Democrats, they have more leeway.

The pressure and the stakes couldn't be higher with the composition of the Supreme Court essentially resting in the hands of six undecided senators.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have not announced how they will vote. Each has expressed reservations about the nominee in the past and two, Flake and Corker, are retiring from the Senate this year.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are waging challenging reelection campaigns in states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. Both Democrats voted for Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Red-state Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who voted for Gorsuch, announced Friday that he plans to vote no on Kavanaugh.

After considering roughly seven hours of heartwrenching and contradicting testimony from Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, these and other senators huddled quietly in the Capitol late into the night Thursday to decide next steps in a politically fraught process.

Before a meeting with McConnell Friday afternoon, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak., told reporters she supported Flake's proposal.

Murkowski is one of "a few" other Republicans who support to delay to have a final floor vote after the FBI has investigated Dr. Ford's allegation, Flake said.

As the Senate prepares to press pause on Kavanaugh's confirmation, political activists, sexual assault survivors and special interest groups are pushing forward.

On Friday, activists rallying against Kavanaugh's nomination cheered the news of Flake's proposal to delay the confirmation vote.

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Throughout the week, liberal groups like the Women's March and Planned Parenthood and conservative groups like Concerned Women For America and the Susan B. Anthony List, marched on the Capitol to make last-ditch appeals to lawmakers.

With another week before the Senate votes, grassroots organizations have started issuing new calls to action over social media, encouraging constituents to bombard undecided senators with emails and phone calls or organize sit-ins at their offices.

Well-financed interest groups are also using their resources to target vulnerable lawmakers. On Thursday, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network purchased a last-ditch ad buy after Kavanaugh's emotionally charged testimony. Since July, JCN has spent well over $1.5 million on advertisements targeting Alabama, Maine, Nevada, West Virginia and other states with tight 2018 races.

Liberal groups, like Demand Justice, also joined the influence game. Founded earlier this year, Demand Justice said it expected to raise $10 million in donations in 2018 and has been on a digital ad-buying blitz to fight Kavanaugh's nomination since July.

Though much of the focus this week has been on the immediate fight over Brett Kavanaugh, demonstrators on Friday were looking ahead to the November midterms, less than 40 days away.

"They have no idea what's coming for them," said Heidi Sieck, CEO of Vote Pro-Choice. "You see it in the stories from survivors, the rage of the women, people of color, people from all walks of life. They are the majority."

Looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, an activist from Vermont said senators who vote for Kavanaugh "should be scared." A protester from Virginia added, "I will never forgive them for this."

On Friday, a large group of demonstrators were arrested in the Dirksen Senate Office Building where senators were deliberating ahead of their vote. They chanted their message to lawmakers, "November is coming!"


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