WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh touted the importance of an independent judiciary as his confirmation hearings began with strident Democratic criticism that he would be President Donald Trump's man on the high court.
On Wednesday, Kavanaugh can expect to spend most of the day in the hot seat, sparring with Democratic senators over abortion, guns, executive power and other high-profile issues.
A long day of questioning awaits the 53-year-old appellate judge, whom Trump nominated in July to fill the seat of retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. The change could make the court more conservative on a range of issues.
Barring a surprise, Republicans appear on track to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, perhaps in time for the first day of the new term, Oct. 1, little more than a month before congressional elections.
However, the first of at least four days of hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee began with partisan quarreling over the nomination and persistent protests from members of the audience, followed by their arrests.
Strong Democratic opposition to Trump's nominee reflects the political stakes for both parties in advance of the November elections, Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's 2016 campaign and the potentially pivotal role Kavanaugh could play in moving the court to the right.
Democrats, including several senators poised for 2020 presidential bids, tried to block the proceedings in a dispute over Kavanaugh records withheld by the White House. Republicans in turn accused the Democrats of turning the hearing into a circus.
Trump jumped into the fray late in the day, saying on Twitter that Democrats were “looking to inflict pain and embarrassment” on Kavanaugh.
The president's comment followed the statements of Democratic senators who warned that Trump was, in the words of Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, “selecting a justice on the Supreme Court who potentially will cast a decisive vote in his own case.”
In Kavanaugh's own statement at the end of more than seven hours of arguing, the federal appeals judge spoke repeatedly about the importance of an independent judiciary and the need to keep the court above partisan politics, common refrains among Supreme Court nominees that had added salience in the fraught political atmosphere of the moment.
With his wife, two children and parents sitting behind him, Kavanaugh called himself a judge with a straightforward judicial philosophy.
“A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written. A judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent,” he said.
The most likely outcome of this week's hearings is a vote along party lines to send Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate.
Majority Republicans can confirm Kavanaugh without any Democratic votes, though they'll have little margin for error.
“There are battles worth fighting, regardless of the outcome,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said in an unsparing opening statement that criticized Kavanaugh's judicial opinions and the Senate process that Democrats said had deprived them of access to records of important chunks of Kavanaugh's time as an aide to President George W. Bush.
Democrats raised objections from the moment Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, gaveled the committee to order. One by one, Democrats, including Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all potential presidential contenders, demanded that Republicans delay the hearing. They railed against the unusual vetting process by Republicans that failed to include documents from three years Kavanaugh worked in the Bush administration, and 100,000 more pages withheld by the Trump White House. Some 42,000 pages were released to senators only, not the public, on the evening before the hearing.
As protesters repeatedly interrupted the session, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who is fighting for his own re-election in Texas, apologized to Kavanaugh for the spectacle he said had less to do about the judge's legal record than Trump in the White House.
“It is about politics,” said Cruz. “It is about Democratic senators re-litigating the 2016 election.”
Republicans will hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate once Jon Kyl, the former Arizona senator, is sworn in to fill the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are the only two Republicans even remotely open to voting against Kavanaugh, though neither has said she would do so. Abortion rights supporters are trying to appeal to those senators, who both favor abortion access.
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