WASHINGTON – Four days after brokering a deal to investigate Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Sens. Jeff Flake and Chris Coons said Tuesday that they were spurred to act by the “vitriol” roiling the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Flake, an Arizona Republican, and Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told an audience at The Atlantic Festival that they fear the partisanship on display during the Kavanaugh hearings will eventually poison not just Congress but the Supreme Court – and U.S. democracy.
“The Supreme Court is the last bastion, the last institution that Americans have faith in,” Flake said. “If that faith is gone, then heaven help us.”
Coons echoed Flake, saying the current moment feels especially trying because of deep partisan divisions that inhibit progress.
“I am enormously frustrated at how little progress we are making tackling the huge issues right in front of us that affect average Americans and that affect our place in the world,” Coons said.
Their appearance comes as the Senate waits for an FBI report into allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted women decades ago when he was in high school and college, and charges that he was a heavy drinker in those days – all of which Kavanaugh forcefully denied in a hearing Thursday.
That hearing included hours of testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who said a drunken 17-year-old Kavanaugh pushed her down on a bed at a party when she was 15, jumped on top of her and tried to undress her. At one point, she said, he put his hand over her mouth before she was able to get away.
She was the only woman to testify last week, but is not the only one who has come forward to accuse Kavanaugh.
He followed Blasey’s testimony with a blistering response that accused Democrats of orchestrating a well-financed smear campaign against him, in part for his work in the George W. Bush White House and on the independent counsel investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Both Flake and Coons said Tuesday they were troubled by Kavanaugh’s demeanor.
“The interaction with the members was sharp and partisan, and that concerns me,” Flake said. “I told myself to give a little leeway because of what he’s been through. But on the other hand, we can’t have this on the court. We simply can’t.”
Flake had said Friday that he found Ford compelling and Kavanaugh persuasive, but that he planned to vote for Kavanaugh because the nominee should enjoy a presumption of innocence. That changed by the end of the day, however, after Democrats complained the GOP was rushing to a vote and Republicans accused the Democrats of stalling with calls for more investigations.
Flake, with the help of Coons and other Democrats, said he would vote to advance Kavanaugh out of committee – if there was a one-week investigation, limited in focus, before a final vote. Senate leaders, who cannot afford to lose a vote on the nomination, agreed to the delay and President Donald Trump ordered the FBI probe Friday.
When asked Tuesday about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement that a vote on Kavanaugh will take place this week, Flake said the agreement “publicly said and agreed to” was that senators would not proceed to a vote until they saw the FBI report.
“We don’t have a report yet, and I’m not sure when we’re going to get that,” he said.
When he gets the report, Flake said he will look to any findings on Kavanaugh’s truthfulness as well as the sexual assault allegations.
“It’s not just considering allegations, it’s considering, as I’ve mentioned before … if we find that he was not truthful with the committee, that’s disqualifying,” Flake said.
Much of the hearing turned on Kavanaugh’s description of slang phrases in his yearbook, but Flake said he would focus on larger questions of judgment, such as whether Kavanaugh falsely characterized his drinking habits.
“If it’s something that’s just clear-cut, you can’t mislead the committee,” Flake said.
He said the anger in Friday’s hearing was perpetuated by both parties, and Coons agreed that there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“The way we’ve conducted ourselves as senators, the way we talk to each other, the way we describe these issues, and the ways in which Judge Kavanaugh’s character and credibility have been challenged and put on trial, and the ways in which he spoke to the committee” have damaged the Supreme Court’s credibility in the eyes of Americans, Coons said.
Flake said after the event that lawmakers are “kind of treating the Supreme Court as an extension of our poisonous politics” – a tendency Coons believes is dangerous.
“Partly why this moment is so powerful and so fraught is that we have asked the Supreme Court to be the arbiter, the deciding light, for some of our most personal, passionate, powerful issues as a country,” Coons said.
But he added that part of the responsibility lies with voters. “It’s up to the citizens of this country to recognize that if you support, and advocate for, and fund candidates who are unyielding and personally vicious, that’s the politics we’ll get,” Coons said.
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