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Republican Sen. Jeff Flake Forces A Delay In Senate Vote On Kavanaugh


The Senate Judiciary Committee began this morning with an early vote scheduled on whether to send the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate floor. Then came a dramatic confrontation by the Senate elevators, a partial walkout by Democrats and a surprise finish from the senator in the middle, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has been following this all day. She's in the studio now. Hey there, Nina.


CORNISH: So first just walk us through what happened in the first part of the morning.

TOTENBERG: Well, this is one of those days, Audie, that reporters really live for, with more twists and turns than a rat's maze. And we're not rats, but we still don't know any more than the rat does how this is going to end up. The day started with Republican Senator Flake of Arizona, who's one of the critical undecided votes or was one of the undecided votes. He announced this morning that he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, but Flake, who has clearly been agonizing about Christine Blasey Ford's allegations, then walked into an elevator and found himself face-to-face with two women who told him that they were sexual assault survivors.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If they have told the truth, they're just going to help that man to power anyway. That's what you're telling all of these women. That's what you're telling me right now. Look at me when I'm talking to you. You're telling me that my assault doesn't matter.

TOTENBERG: Meanwhile, back at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans were in the process of ramming through what they thought was a safe committee vote. Republicans repeatedly said that they believed Ford was sexually assaulted by someone, but they believed Kavanaugh when he said it wasn't him. Here, for instance, is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: All I can say about Ms. Ford - I feel sorry for her, and I do believe something happened to her. And I don't know when and where, but I don't believe it was Brett Kavanaugh.

TOTENBERG: That only served to infuriate ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: While the Republican strategy is no longer attack the victim, it is ignoring the victim.

TOTENBERG: And Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, her voice shaking with anger, recalled the many times that the committee has in the past sought a further FBI investigation to gather more facts when the committee receives a new allegation.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: I for one don't want to live in an evidence-free zone. We need this information. I would submit to my friends across the aisle this is not a he said, she said. This is a he said, they said.

CORNISH: And we'll hear more from Senator Amy Klobuchar in just a few minutes. But, Nina, with the nomination appearing to be basically a done deal, what do you think changed?

TOTENBERG: Well, it was still on track in the morning, and Republicans voted to call a vote at 1:30 in the afternoon. But when 1:30 came and went and 1:40 came and went and 1:50 - well, it was clear something was going on. And soon the committee reassembled with a stunning statement from Senator Flake. The man who began the day saying he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh announced he had a caveat.


JEFF FLAKE: This country's being ripped apart here, and we've got to make sure that we do due diligence. I think this committee has done a good job, but I do think that we can have a short pause and make sure that the FBI can investigate.

TOTENBERG: By this afternoon, with several key senators joining Flake, the Republican leadership agreed to a delay on the vote for a week. And Trump said he would order that immediately, which he did just this afternoon. There were some immediate consequences. Mark Judge, the man who Ford says was in the room when Kavanaugh attacked her now says he will cooperate with the FBI. And until now, he'd refuse to answer questions from the Judiciary Committee and yesterday sent a letter to the committee saying he has no memory of such an event.

CORNISH: What exactly are the parameters of the FBI investigation?

TOTENBERG: That's sort of the $64,000 question. It's still to be determined. It's unclear whether the FBI will talk to corroborating witnesses who Ford confided in long before the Kavanaugh nomination. It's also unclear whether the Bureau will investigate other allegations against Kavanaugh, including one from a Yale classmate.

CORNISH: Now, you've covered lots of Supreme Court nominations. What does this mean?

TOTENBERG: I always say that confirmation hearings even when they seem predictable are not. Anything can happen in a confirmation. And indeed Brett Kavanaugh looked like a sure bet for confirmation just two weeks ago. And I still wouldn't bet against him. There's no doubt that Mitch McConnell will do everything in his power - he's the majority leader - to push the Kavanaugh nomination through. For Republicans and McConnell in particular, this is the moment they've been - worked for for 40 years, conservative control of the court.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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