Inside controversial committee vote
Flake, Coons offer rare show of bipartisanship
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.”