WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will cast a long shadow over Brett Kavanaugh when the judge faces a fierce grilling on his nomination to the Supreme Court by Democrats at Senate confirmation hearings that begin Tuesday.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee say they’ll press Kavanaugh on whether he would fulfill the president’s promise to appoint only justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade and find Obamacare unconstitutional — or even if he would protect Trump from subpoenas or indictments by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
“There will be sparks at this hearing. Sparks will fly. And there will be a lot of heat,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a committee member and declared opponent to Kavanaugh’s nomination. “I expect there will also be light on Brett Kavanaugh’s record.”
Kavanaugh, 53, a conservative appellate court judge, is poised to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose judicial approach made him a swing vote on social issues such as gay marriage, and would solidify a majority for the court’s right-leaning bloc.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted Sunday that not only will all of the 50 current Republican senators vote for Kavanaugh but a handful of Democrats will too.
Kavanaugh, Republicans say, has stellar credentials for the job — undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, tested as a White House lawyer and assistant for President George W. Bush, and for the past 12 years a judge on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The American Bar Association gave Kavanaugh a “well qualified” rating.
“Opposition to Kavanaugh is as much opposition to Trump as it is to the nominee,” said Tom Jipping, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who worries Trump-related questions will give short shrift to important discussions of the role of the court.
But Democrats say the stakes could not be higher as they argue that a Justice Kavanaugh could roll back women’s reproductive rights, health care, civil rights, workers’ rights, environmental protections and LGBTQ rights while expanding executive authority.
The hearings will begin Tuesday, when the 11 Republican and 10 Democratic committee members make statements. Kavanaugh could be introduced and make his opening statement. He’ll face questions Wednesday and Thursday. Experts and advocates testify Friday.
Kavanaugh will appear at the hearings amid complaints by Democrats that he has not been properly vetted because Republicans have only made public a small portion of his voluminous paper trail and the National Archives won’t release most of it until late October. In a rare move, Trump on Friday cited executive privilege to withhold more than 100,000 pages of Kavanaugh's records.
Democrats have demanded that the hearings and vote be delayed until all the records are available, but Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said senators have plenty to judge Kavanaugh’s fitness, including thousands of pages of records and all 307 of his written opinions.
Republicans hope to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1, when the Supreme Court convenes for its new term.
With a current 50-49 majority, which could grow to 51-49 if a replacement for the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona is named in time, Republicans should be able to confirm Kavanaugh — unless he loses support from one or two GOP senators.
“His legal brilliance and his fair, open-minded approach have won him vocal praise from those in the know across the political spectrum,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week.
But Democrats accuse Trump, who often attacks Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt,” of picking Kavanaugh because he says a president shouldn’t face investigations or indictments, and should be able to fire special counsels.
Republicans reject that argument as a strained reading of Kavanaugh’s record and statements.
Outside groups opposing and supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination have spent millions in advertising and in organizing campaign-like rallies — pouring much of their effort into the states represented by more moderate senators of both parties.
Despite Kavanaugh’s attempt to make an impression as a sincere judge who would only interpret the laws like an umpire calling balls and strikes, he has the lowest approval rating in the polls since Judge Robert Bork in 1987.
Surveys conducted for Fox News, Pew Research, Quinnipiac, Gallup and the Wall Street Journal/NBC show Americans are evenly divided along partisan lines about whether the Senate should confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“Voters see politics in such partisan terms that they — and lawmakers who represent them — see nominees in similarly partisan terms,” said Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political science professor. “It’s both a Trump effect but also a symptom of rising polarization catching up to the Court.”
RECENT U.S. SENATE VOTES ON SUPREME COURT NOMINEES
President Donald Trump
Neil M. Gorsuch: 54-45, April 7, 2017
President Barack Obama
Elena Kagan: 63-37, Aug. 5, 2010
Sonia Sotomayor: 68-31, Aug. 6, 2009
President George W. Bush
Samuel A. Alito, Jr: 58-42, Jan. 31, 2006
John G. Roberts, Jr: 78-22, Sept. 29, 2005
President Bill Clinton
Stephen G. Breyer: 87-9, July 29, 1994
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 96-3, Aug. 3, 1993
President George H.W. Bush
Clarence Thomas: 52-48, Oct. 15, 1991
David H. Souter: 90-9, Oct. 2, 1990
Source: United States Senate