By Lawrence Hurley and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Republicans struggled on Monday to salvage President Donald Trump‘s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court even as the judge and the woman who accused him of a 1982 sexual assault offered to testify publicly and Trump called the nomination “on track.”
With Kavanaugh‘s once-safe nomination for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court now appearing in jeopardy, the conservative federal appeals court judge had meetings at the White House and issued a fresh denial calling the assault allegation “completely false.” Trump‘s fellow Republicans in the Senate, which must confirm Supreme Court appointments, looked for a way forward.
A number of senators said Kavanaugh and Ford should be given the chance to testify before the committee, a move that could delay the high-stakes confirmation process including a planned vote in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. These included moderates in both parties such as pivotal Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, as well as hard-line conservative Republican Ted Cruz.
Democrats, already fiercely opposed to Kavanaugh, demanded a delay in the committee’s vote to let the FBI investigate.
“Obviously, if Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying,” Collins told reporters, adding that she would like the chance to observe Christine Blasey Ford, the university professor in California who made the allegation, to decide the credibility of her account.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Ford “deserves to be heard,” but he and other senior Republicans stopped short of calling for a public hearing or for delaying the panel’s vote.
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.
In careful remarks at the White House in which he did not offer his view on the actual allegation against his nominee, Trump called for the Senate to go through a “full process” and accepted a small delay, though warned that “it shouldn’t certainly be very much.”
“If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay,” said Trump, who dismissed as a “ridiculous question” a reporter’s query about whether Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw his name from consideration.
“I think he’s very much on track,” Trump said.
Ford has accused Kavanaugh of trying to attack her and remove her clothing while drunk 36 years ago in a Maryland suburb outside Washington when they were students in different high schools.
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 sworn testimony at a public hearing before senators, Katz told CBS’s “This Morning” program: “She’s willing to do what she needs to do.”
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 party.
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.
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. The Democrats have refused to cooperate. In a statement, the committee Democrats said they would not participate in a phone call with Kavanaugh proposed by the Republicans.
Grassley said he will continue working on a way to hear from Ford “in an appropriate, precedented and respectful manner.”
Like Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats for raising a matter dating back to high school at the last minute “in an irregular manner” after a week-long confirmation hearing this month.
Trump, who himself faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct that emerged during the 2016 presidential election, said he did not meet with Kavanaugh when the nominee visited the White House.
“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, his first comment since Ford‘s identity was revealed on Sunday.
“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.
Kavanaugh has said he was not at the party where the incident allegedly occurred, according to a White House official.
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.
Trump and other prominent Republicans refrained from attacking Ford. “This woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored,” White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway 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.
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.
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.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Will Dunham)