In­side con­tro­ver­sial com­mit­tee vote

Flake, Coons of­fer rare show of bi­par­ti­san­ship

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - El­iza Collins and Richard Wolf

WASH­ING­TON – It be­gan with a friendly tap on the shoul­der and a rare show of bi­par­ti­san­ship.

By the time it ended Fri­day af­ter­noon, Brett Ka­vanaugh had won a hard­earned stamp of ap­proval from the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee but faced an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a 36-year-old ac­cu­sa­tion of sex­ual as­sault.

The driv­ing force be­hind the com­pro­mise was Sen. Jeff Flake, the re­tir­ing Ari­zona Repub­li­can who has be­come a thorn in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s side. Flake had been cor­nered in an el­e­va­tor by two sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors as he headed to the com­mit­tee meet­ing.

“You’re telling me that my as­sault doesn’t mat­ter,” one woman said, her re­marks cap­tured by TV cam­eras.

A clearly con­flicted Flake had put out a sim­ple, four-para­graph press re­lease Fri­day morn­ing an­nounc­ing his lon­gan­tic­i­pated sup­port for Ka­vanaugh’s as­cen­sion to the Supreme Court. The an­nounce­ment was a ma­jor boost for the judge, but it was to be short-lived.

Flake later told re­porters it wasn’t a sin­gle mo­ment that in­flu­enced him, but he was clearly shaken after the el­e­va­tor en­counter. He said he had al­ready spent the week hear­ing from peo­ple “em­bold­ened” to come for­ward with their sto­ries of sex­ual as­sault.

“I’ve heard from friends, close friends. I had no idea,” Flake said. Al­ready torn, he said, he watched Ford and Ka­vanaugh tes­tify Thurs­day, then en­dured a sleep­less night.

As most of the panel’s 21 mem­bers droned on for hours about the nom­i­na­tion, Flake looked trou­bled. He left the room fre­quently. And after Sen. Christo­pher Coons, D-Del., fin­ished speak­ing about the need for an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Flake moved from the Repub­li­can to the Demo­cratic side of the dais and tapped his friend on the shoul­der.

“It’s about the court’s le­git­i­macy,” Coons had just said. If Ka­vanaugh is con­firmed with­out a fuller in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “his ser­vice may well have an as­ter­isk. Lit­i­gants com­ing to the court will have rea­son to ques­tion the fair­ness of the in­sti­tu­tion.”

The Flake-Coons tete-a-tete set off a flurry of con­ver­sa­tions out­side the room as sen­a­tors de­liv­ered re­marks in­side, a clear sign some­thing was up.

Fol­low­ing Flake and Coons into a side room were Sens. Pa­trick Leahy, DVt., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Oth­ers con­tin­ued to go back and forth. Sen. Shel­don White­house, D-R.I., sug­gested to com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, that the sched­uled 1:30 p.m. EDT vote be de­layed.

“At some point, vir­tu­ally ev­ery mem­ber of the com­mit­tee … was in the back hall,” Coons said. He ac­knowl­edged there were “very sharp con­ver­sa­tions” about “some of the par­ti­san­ship and some of the pos­tur­ing.”

As the clocked ticked to­ward 2 p.m., the ne­go­tia­tors emerged with a deal. Flake voted with his party to ad­vance Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion by an 11-10 vote. But he asked that the FBI be given up to a week to in­ves­ti­gate Chris­tine Blasey Ford’s claim that Ka­vanaugh as­saulted her in 1982.

As Grass­ley ad­journed the panel, there was con­fu­sion about what they had just voted on. Was a sec­ond vote nec­es­sary on the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion?

“What?” Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, DCalif., could be heard ask­ing. “Did you cut off a vote?”

“This is all a gen­tle­men’s and women’s agree­ment,” Grass­ley said. But within hours, it was turned into a for­mal com­mit­tee state­ment re­quest­ing that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion or­der the FBI to in­ves­ti­gate.

There was still one more thing to do. “Some­one’s got to ex­plain this to Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Gra­ham, R-S.C., told re­porters. Asked to ex­plain it him­self, Gra­ham of­fered three sim­ple words: “This is democ­racy.”

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