WASHINGTON — Republicans abruptly laid plans Monday for a Senate committee hearing at which Brett Kavanaugh and the woman alleging he sexually assaulted her decades ago will testify publicly, as GOP leaders grudgingly opted for a dramatic showdown they hoped would prevent the accusation from sinking his Supreme Court nomination.
With GOP support eroding for plunging ahead without openly examining the allegations, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said his panel would hold a hearing next Monday with both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
“To provide ample transparency, we will hold a public hearing Monday to give these recent allegations a full airing,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement.
Just hours earlier, top Republicans had shown no interest in a theatrical spectacle that would thrust Kavanaugh and Ford before television cameras with each offering public— and no doubt conflicting — versions of what did or didn’t happen at a high school party in the early 1980s.
Instead, Grassley had said he’d seek telephone interviews with Kavanaugh and Ford, winning plaudits from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for planning to handle the episode “by the book.” Democrats rejected that plan, saying the seriousness of the charges merited a full FBI investigation.
Republicans had also displayed no willingness to delay a Judiciary panel vote that Grassley had planned for this Thursday to advance the nomination, setting the stage for full Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh by month’s end, in time for the new Supreme Court session. Thursday’s vote will not occur.
President Donald Trump telegraphed earlier Monday that that schedule might slip. He told reporters at the White House: “If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay.”
If the Judiciary committee’s timetable slips, it would become increasingly difficult for Republicans to schedule a vote before the Nov. 6 elections.
With fragile GOP majorities of just 12-11 on the Judiciary committee and 51-49 in the full Senate, Republican leaders had little room for defectors without risking a humiliating defeat of Trump’s nominee to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Among the GOP defectors was Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Judiciary Committee member who has clashed bitterly with Trump and is retiring from the Senate. Flake said he told No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas on Sunday that “if we didn’t give her a chance to be heard, then I would vote no.”
There was enormous pressure on GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two moderates who have yet to announce their positions on Kavanaugh and aren’t on the Judiciary Committee.
Collins said both Kavanaugh and Ford should testify under oath to the committee. Neither she nor Murkowski face re-election this fall.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another retiring Trump critic who is not on the committee, also said he favored delaying Thursday’s panel meeting.
With the #MeToo movement galvanizing liberal and female voters and already costing prominent men their jobs in government, journalism and entertainment, a hearing would offer a fuller vetting of Ford’s charges but also present a politically jarring prelude to November elections for control of Congress.
Some Democrats raised questions about whether Grassley’s plan was sufficient.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, told reporters that “there needs to be some investigation first, and I’m not that sure this allows for that.” Another Democrat on the panel, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said staging the hearing without the FBI investigation would make it a “sham.”
Underscoring the raw political divisions prompted by the Kavanaugh fight, Feinstein said she’d only learned of the hearing on Twitter.
Earlier, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York said it would be “a deep insult to the women of America” if Grassley did not postpone Thursday’s meeting. And in an unusually personal swipe, Schumer said McConnell was showing “unmitigated gall” to oppose delaying Kavanaugh’s nomination after refusing for most of 2016 to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court after Antonin Scalia died.
Kavanaugh and Ford had each indicated earlier Monday a willingness to testify to the Judiciary committee. Debra S. Katz, Ford’s attorney, said on NBC’s “Today” show that Ford was ready to testify publicly to the Judiciary panel, but she did not respond Monday evening to efforts to learn whether she would appear.
Kavanaugh, 53, whose confirmation had seemed to be on a smooth trajectory, went to the White House on Monday. Trump said he did not meet with his nominee and declined to say whether Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw, dismissing the question as “ridiculous.”
Ford, now a psychology professor at California’s Palo Alto University, told The Washington Post that an intoxicated Kavanaugh corralled her into a bedroom at a Maryland party when she was around 15 and Kavanaugh was about 17, held her down on a bed, tried to undress her and held his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. She said she got away when a companion of Kavanaugh’s jumped on him.
Kavanaugh said in a statement distributed by the White House on Monday that he wanted to “refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity.”
Kavanaugh is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, widely viewed as the nation’s second-most-powerful court.
Until Monday, Trump had remained silent about the allegations against Kavanaugh. The president himself has faced accusations of affairs and unwanted advances — not to mention his taped comments about groping women that emerged shortly before he was elected in 2016.
Katz said Ford, who revealed her identity Sunday in an interview with the Post after weeks of refusing to do so, believes “she would have been raped” by Kavanaugh had he not been drunk.