WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Confidence grew among President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans on Thursday (Oct 4) that Brett Kavanaugh would win Senate confirmation to the US Supreme Court, after positive comments from two wavering lawmakers about an FBI report on accusations of sexual misconduct by the judge.
The report, sent by the White House to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the middle of the night, was denounced by Democrats as a whitewash that was too narrow in scope and ignored critical witnesses. But Republicans moved forward with plans for a key procedural vote on Friday and a final vote on Saturday on confirming the conservative federal appeals judge chosen by Trump for a lifetime job on the nation's top court.
The FBI report represented the latest twist in a pitched political battle over Kavanaugh, and comments by two crucial Republican senators - Jeff Flake and Susan Collins - indicated it may have allayed concerns they had about the judge. Flake was instrumental in getting Trump to order the FBI investigation last Friday.
Republicans control the Senate by a razor-thin margin, meaning the votes of those two could be crucial in securing Kavanaugh's confirmation.
Collins said the investigation appeared to be thorough, while Flake said he saw no additional corroborating information against Kavanaugh, although he was "still reading" it.
A previously undecided Democratic Senator, Heidi Heitkamp, said she would vote against Kavanaugh, citing "concerns about his past conduct" and questions about his "temperament, honesty and impartiality" after his angry, defiant testimony a week ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Heitkamp's decision left Senator Joe Manchin as the only undecided Democrat.
Most Democrats opposed Trump's nomination of Kavanaugh from the outset. If confirmed, he would deepen conservative control of the court. The sharply partisan battle became an intense political drama when three women emerged to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s when he was in high school and college. Kavanaugh has denied the accusations.
The battle over Kavanaugh has riveted Americans weeks before Nov 6 elections in which Democrats are trying to take control of Congress from the Republicans.
"It smacks of a whitewash," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters, saying the report should not give political cover for Republicans to vote for Kavanaugh because "it is blatantly incomplete."
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein noted that the FBI did not interview Kavanaugh himself or Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 1982.
Thousands of protesters, some holding signs saying "Believe Survivors" and "Kava-Nope," rallied in front of the Supreme Court in opposition to Kavanaugh, whose nomination has become a flashpoint in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
The nomination battle boiled down to a "he said, she said" conflict requiring senators to decide between diametrically opposed accounts offered by Kavanaugh and Ford.
Trump, himself accused by numerous women during the 2016 presidential race of sexual misconduct, wrote on Twitter that the FBI report showed that the allegations against Kavanaugh were "totally uncorroborated."
The report was not released to the public. Senators were allowed to read it behind closed doors in a secure location in the Capitol, without taking notes or making copies.
A senior Senate Republican aide said there was growing confidence that Collins, Flake and Manchin - all swing votes - would support Kavanaugh. If so, that could be enough for a Trump victory in this battle. Another undecided Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski, did not offer her view on the FBI report.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said the Trump administration was "fully confident" Kavanaugh had the necessary support.
"I feel pretty good about where we are," added Senator John Thune, a member of Senate Republican leadership.
Republicans control the Senate by a 51-49 margin. If all the Democrats oppose Kavanaugh, Trump cannot afford to lose the support of more than one Republican for his nominee, with Vice-President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote. No Republicans have said they will vote against Kavanaugh.
"When the noise fades, when the uncorroborated mud washes away, what's left is the distinguished nominee who stands before us. An acclaimed judge," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor after the report's release.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said after receiving a staff briefing on the report: "There's nothing in it that we didn't already know. These uncorroborated accusations have been unequivocally and repeatedly rejected by Judge Kavanaugh, and neither the Judiciary Committee nor the FBI could locate any third parties who can attest to any of the allegations."
The White House believes the FBI report addressed the Senate's questions about Kavanaugh, Shah told CNN, adding that the FBI reached out to 10 people in its investigation and"comprehensively interviewed" nine of them.
"The White House didn't micromanage the FBI," he said.
In a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray, Ford's lawyers noted that the agency declined to interview Ford or any of more than a dozen people they said could provide relevant information, calling the five-day investigation "a stain on the process, on the FBI and on our American ideal of justice."
Ford, who testified last week at a dramatic Judiciary Committee hearing, said a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her down, tried to remove her clothing and covered her mouth when she screamed.
He denied the allegation and painted himself as the victim of a "political hit."
Attorneys for Deborah Ramirez, who also has accused the judge of sexual misconduct in the 1980s, wrote a separate letter to Wray saying they were "deeply disappointed" that agents had not followed up on their interview with her by talking to the more than 20 witnesses she identified as being able to corroborate her account of his behaviour.