By Lawrence Hurley and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump‘s U.S. Supreme Court pick, and a woman accusing him of a 1982 sexual assault both offered on Monday to testify publicly before a Senate panel even as the embattled nominee issued a new denial of the allegation.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee overseeing the high-stakes nomination, said Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor in California who made the allegation, “deserves to be heard.”
Grassley and some other senior Senate Republicans stopped short of calling for a public hearing or for delaying the panel’s vote scheduled on Thursday on Kavanaugh‘s nomination. However, moderates in both parties including pivotal Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said Kavanaugh and Ford should be given the chance to testify before the panel, a move that could delay the confirmation process.
Ford has accused Kavanaugh, a conservative appeals court judge chosen by Trump for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court, of trying to attack her and remove her clothing while drunk in 1982 in a Maryland suburb outside Washington when they were students in different high schools.
In a day of fast-moving developments, all 10 Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee sent a letter urging a delay in the vote so the FBI can investigate the allegation.
In television interviews on Monday, Ford‘s Washington-based lawyer, Debra Katz, said her client would be willing to speak out publicly. Asked if that included testimony under oath at a public hearing before senators, Katz told CBS’s “This Morning” program: “She’s willing to do what she needs to do.”
Trump‘s fellow Republicans control the Senate by only a narrow margin, meaning any defections could sink the nomination and deal a major setback to Trump, who has been engaged in a so-far successful effort since becoming president last year to move the Supreme Court and broader federal judiciary to the right.
Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sided with the court’s liberal wing. Without Kennedy on the court, the justices are split 4-4 between liberals and conservatives.
The confirmation fight comes just weeks before the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are seeking to take control of Congress from Trump‘s fellow Republicans.
Grassley said the standard procedure would be to conduct follow-up telephone calls with Kavanaugh and Ford, and that he intended to work with the senior Democrat on the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, to schedule the calls but that Democrats have refused to cooperate. Grassley said he will continue working on a way to hear from Ford “in an appropriate, precedented and respectful manner.”
Kavanaugh visited the White House on Monday morning and issued a new denial of the allegation against him, his first since Ford‘s identity was revealed on Sunday.
“This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone,” Kavanaugh said in a statement issued by the White House.
“Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday,” added Kavanaugh, who said he is willing to talk to the Judiciary Committee in any way it deems appropriate “to refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a Judiciary Committee member, said he spoke with Kavanaugh on Monday and he recalled that the nominee told him he was not even at the party where the incident was allegedly to have occurred.
“The judge, who I know very, very well, is an honest man, so this didn’t happen,” Hatch said.
“This is a serious charge. It has to be investigated. We have to have hearings,” Hatch added.
Republicans hold a slim 11-10 advantage on the Judiciary Committee and a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Under Senate rules, the committee could forward the nomination to the Senate floor without an affirmative vote.
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said sworn testimony from both Kavanaugh and Ford on the specific allegation should be considered as part of the record in the judge’s hearings. “This woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored,” Conway said told Fox News.
The comments by Ford‘s lawyer suggested any public hearing could be explosive. Ford believes Kavanaugh‘s alleged actions were “attempted rape” and “that if it were not for the severe intoxication of Brett Kavanaugh, she would have been raped,” Katz told NBC’s “Today” program.
Katz told CBS that Ford had consumed a beer but was not drunk. Ford was 15 at the time of the alleged incident. Kavanaugh was 17.
“Trying to rush this through on Thursday is an insult to the women of America and an insult to the majesty of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer told ABC’s “The View.”
The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group that backs Trump‘s judicial picks, plans to launch a $1.5 million ad campaign backing Kavanaugh, a spokeswoman said.
Republican panel member Jeff Flake said he would not be comfortable voting on the nomination until the committee hears from Ford. Committee Republican Lindsey Graham welcomed hearing from Ford but said it should “be done immediately so the process can continue as scheduled.”
Ford detailed her story in a letter sent to Feinstein in July. The letter’s contents leaked last week and Ford identified herself in an interview with the Washington Post published on Sunday.
Ford and her lawyers have not responded to Reuters requests for comment.
The Kavanaugh fight has similarities to the confirmation process for conservative Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. He faced sexual harassment allegations brought by a law professor named Anita Hill but was ultimately confirmed by the Senate.
If Kavanaugh‘s nomination fails, Trump would get to select a replacement, but that nominee likely would not be confirmed by the Senate before the election. Even if Republicans lose control of the Senate in the midterm election, they likely would be able to vote on a second nominee before the new Congress is seated in January.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Will Dunham)