WASHINGTON -- Conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh plunged into his confirmation battle Tuesday, meeting face to face with Senate leaders in what promises to be an intense debate over abortion rights, presidential power and other legal disputes that stand to reshape the court and roil this fall's elections.
Kavanaugh is a favorite of the GOP legal establishment, and his arrival as President Donald Trump's nominee was greeted on Capitol Hill with praise from Republicans and skepticism from Democrats. There were also pledges of open minds by key senators whose votes are likely to determine the outcome.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Kavanaugh "one of the most thoughtful jurists" in the country but warned of an onslaught of "fear mongering" from liberal groups trying to derail the nomination. He said it was clear that many Democrats "didn't care who the nominee was at all. Whoever President Trump put up they were opposed to."
"They wrote statements of opposition only to fill in the name later," McConnell said, growing exercised as he delivered his customary morning remarks on the Senate floor. "Senate Democrats were on record opposing him before he'd even been named! Just fill in the name! Whoever it is, we're against."
Charles Schumer, the Senate's Democratic leader, said his party's lawmakers did indeed care who the nominee was -- and what his views were on such thorny issues as abortion and Trump himself.
Trump "did exactly what he said he would do on the campaign trail -- nominate someone who will overturn women's reproductive rights," the New York senator said.
He also argued that the president chose the man he thought would best protect him from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Kavanaugh has written about a need to free the executive branch from intrusive criminal investigations.
"Not only did Mr. Kavanaugh say that a president should not be subpoenaed, he said a president shouldn't be investigated," Schumer said.
The confirmation is expected to drag on for months, and no date has yet been set for hearings. GOP leaders, with a slim majority in the Senate, have said they want to have Kavanaugh in place for the start of the court's session in October -- and before the November congressional elections.
But that may be a tall order. His confirmation is complicated by a long record as an appellate judge and as a President George W. Bush administration official -- and also his role as part of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Kavanaugh, just 53, could serve on the high court for decades.
As Kavanaugh arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday, he huddled with McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence and former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. He also met with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will determine whether to recommend him to the full Senate.
McConnell, who has been influential in shaping Trump's remaking of the judiciary, said, "What we'd like to see is a few open minds about this extraordinary talent."
Grassley said a speedy confirmation wasn't necessarily the goal. The vetting process, he said, is "going to be thorough and going to be done right." Pence told reporters that Kavanaugh was a "good man."
Grassley told reporters that Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing won't come before the chamber's early August recess. The committee will need "a couple of months" to review the nominee's cases, he said.
"These 300 cases are a lot of cases to go through," Grassley said. "We are going to staff up and do it so we can have an intelligent discussion with him before he comes before the committee."
While Grassley said the paper trail from Kavanaugh's role in Clinton's impeachment proceedings "could" slow things down a bit, he said he still thinks Kavanaugh will get a vote before the midterm congressional elections in November.
Republicans have little margin of error for the final vote unless a few Democrats can be brought onboard. McConnell has a 51-49 Senate majority, narrowed further by the absence of ailing Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But they hope to gain support from a handful of Democrats who are up for re-election in states where Trump is popular.
By fall, the nomination may turn on a handful of senators who will be under enormous pressure ahead of the midterm elections.
As Kavanaugh arrived at the Capitol to meet with Grassley, the committee's Democrats and Democratic leader took to the Supreme Court steps to deliver a direct appeal to Americans to rise up in opposition to his nomination.
"If you are a young woman in America or care about a young woman in America, pay attention to this," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. "It will affect your life."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut issued a specific plea to the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.: "If you care about common-sense gun violence protections, Judge Kavanaugh is your worst nightmare."
Before Kavanaugh's nomination Monday night, Democrats had centered their strategy on abortion rights and health care. But the judge has given them a new line of attack: a 1998 law review article that he wrote casting doubt on whether a president could be indicted -- a theory that goes to the heart of the special counsel's investigation of Trump.
"Whether the Constitution allows indictment of a sitting president is debatable," the judge wrote then.
Schumer said Democrats would use confirmation hearings to drill down on those views.
"We knew with any of the 25 nominees that health care and women's health, right to choose would be important," Schumer said, referring to the list of potential candidates drawn up for Trump by conservative groups during the 2016 campaign. "But Kavanaugh brings a new prominence to the issue of executive power, because he is almost certainly the most hard right of all of the 25. He is almost certainly the one who would most yield to presidential power."
Democrats are also trying to pressure two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to oppose any nominee who threatens the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The two have supported access to abortion services, and activists have already begun sending wire coat hangers, as a symbol of an era when abortion was illegal, to Collins' office.
She said that with Kavanaugh's credentials, "it's very difficult for anyone to tell me that he's not qualified for the job." But she added that other issues also would come into play for her, including "judicial temperament" and "judicial philosophy."
Murkowski said, "We've got some due diligence that we've got to do."
Kavanaugh in the past has made statements about respecting precedent that could help in winning over senators, particularly Murkowski and Collins.
In his 2006 confirmation hearing to become a federal judge, he said, "I would follow Roe v. Wade faithfully and fully" because it's "binding precedent" that has been "reaffirmed many times."
"Brett Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews -- rave reviews -- actually, from both sides," Trump said Tuesday, a stark mischaracterization of Democrats' comments, as he left the White House for a weeklong overseas trip. "And I think it's going to be a beautiful thing to watch over the next month."
At the same time, Republicans are urging a half dozen Democratic senators, largely those who are up for re-election in Trump-won states, to back the president's choice.
Among their targets are Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as Doug Jones of Alabama, who is not up for re-election but represents a conservative state in the Deep South.
Manchin and Donnelly both said they will carefully review Kavanaugh's record.
"Part of my job as senator includes thoroughly considering judicial nominations, including to the Supreme Court," Donnelly said in a statement. "I will take the same approach as I have previously for a Supreme Court vacancy."
"I'm not making any rash decisions on this," Manchin said Tuesday.
"Our people are looking into everything he's done in his professional life and I intend to go back home and listen to the people of West Virginia and see what they think," he said.
Pence appeared on a West Virginia radio program and expressed hope that Manchin would be among those voting to confirm Kavanaugh.
"At the end of the day, I truly do believe this will be a choice for Sen. Manchin -- whether he's going to stand with Chuck Schumer and liberals in Washington, D.C., who are prepared to oppose the most qualified, the most deserving nominee to the Supreme Court in the United States today," Pence said.
Supporters of Kavanaugh were mobilizing as well. Leading social conservative political groups, like the Family Research Council, the Susan B. Anthony List, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Concerned Women for America, quickly praised Kavanaugh as a qualified pick and are rallying the anti-abortion grass roots to support his confirmation with ads, rallies and online campaigns.
Conservative evangelicals and Catholics have long said they would be happy with any of the potential anti-abortion nominees on Trump's list. But behind the scenes, some had hoped for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
One conservative Christian group, the American Family Association, which had supported Barrett, has called on voters to oppose Kavanaugh's nomination, citing concerns about his positions on religious liberty and abortion. The group issued a statement calling him "simply the wrong nominee -- even a bad nominee."
Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Mascaro, Kevin Freking, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman, Catherine Lucey, Mark Sherman, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram of The Associated Press; by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Thomas Kaplan of The New York Times; and by Laura Litvan and staff members of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 07/11/2018
Print Headline: Months of scrutiny begin for nominee; Grassley vows to comb record; right to abortion at risk, Democrats warn