U.S. Senate close to final vote on Kavanaugh top court nomination

U.S. senators are poised to make their final decision on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, following a polarizing process plagued by incendiary accusations, hardball politics and rowdy Capitol protests.

But after a fight for the ages between Democrats and Republicans, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, President Donald Trump's nominee for the top court seems assured of surviving his nomination fight now that two wavering senators said they would back him.

CBC News will live stream the vote, scheduled for around 3:30 p.m. ET, and also carry it live on CBC News Network. Special coverage will begin at 3 p.m. ET.

As the vote neared on Saturday afternoon, protesters pushed through barriers in front of the Supreme Court and went to the U.S. Capitol, where several dozen climbed exterior stairs, only to be removed by police. Raucous demonstrators, largely anti-Kavanaugh, have been a fixture throughout the nomination process and previously raised tensions during the nomination process by confronting lawmakers. On Friday, a further 101 protesters were arrested by U.S. Capitol Police.

Watch live as protesters demonstrate on Capitol Hill:

Demonstrators are protesting on Capitol Hill ahead of the final Senate vote on Brett Kananaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. 0:00

But despite demonstrators' rage and resistance, announcements by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia that they'll support the conservative jurist have likely made Saturday's confirmation vote a formality, an anticlimactic finale to a battle that riveted the nation for nearly a month.

While the Democrats' defeat was all but certain, the Senate remained in session overnight, though the chamber was mostly empty. The roll call seemed destined to be nearly party-line, with just a single defector from each side capping a contest fought against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and Trump's unyielding support of his nominee.

Millions of Americans, millions of women are watching us today.– New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Kavanaugh's opponents raised concerns that he'd push the court further right, including possible sympathetic rulings for Trump. But for the past few weeks, the battle was dominated by allegations that he sexually abused women decades ago — accusations he emphatically denied.

"Millions of Americans, millions of women are watching us today," said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the Democrats who took to the Senate floor early Saturday to rail against Kavanaugh. "They're waiting to see whether or not, when a woman comes forward and says that she is a survivor of sexual assault, does this chamber, do the individuals here take her seriously?"

Collins says no corroborating evidence

A day earlier, Collins told fellow senators that Christine Blasey Ford's dramatic testimony last month describing Kavanaugh's alleged 1982 assault was "sincere, painful and compelling." But Collins said the FBI had found no corroborating evidence from witnesses whose names Ford had provided.

U.S. President Donald Trump's second Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh is expected to win confirmation from the Senate later Saturday. (Tom Williams/EPA-EFE)

"We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be," she said. "We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy."

Those passions were on full display in a fight that could energize both parties' voters in elections for control of Congress just five weeks away.

Collins, perhaps the chamber's most moderate Republican, proclaimed her support for Kavanaugh at the end of a floor speech that lasted nearly 45 minutes. While she was among a handful of Republicans who helped sink Trump's quest to obliterate President Barack Obama's health-care law last year, this time she proved instrumental in delivering a triumph to Trump.

Watch Collins explain why she will vote to confirm Kavanaugh:

Republican Susan Collins explained to the Senate her reasons for supporting Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court 0:55

Manchin, the only remaining undeclared lawmaker, used an emailed statement to announce his support for Kavanaugh moments after Collins finished talking. Manchin, the only Democrat supporting the nominee, faces a competitive re-election race next month in a state Trump carried in 2016 by 42 percentage points.

Chants of 'shame'

"My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual assault in their life," Manchin said. But he added that based on the FBI report, "I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him."

Protesters chanted "shame" at Manchin later when he talked to reporters outside his office.

Republicans control the Senate by a meagre 51-49 margin. Support from Collins and Manchin would give Kavanaugh at least 51 votes, assuming no one else changes their stance.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, explains her decision to oppose the nomination of Kavanaugh. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE)

Three female Republican senators — Iowa's Jodi Ernst, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito and Mississippi's Cindy Hyde-Smith — sat directly behind Collins as she spoke. Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, sat directly in front of Collins and pivoted his seat around to face her. A few Democrats sat stone-faced nearby.

When she finished, Collins received applause from the roughly two dozen Republican senators present.

'Appearance of impropriety'

Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, a fellow moderate and a friend of Collins, became the only Republican to say she opposed Kavanaugh. She said on the Senate floor Friday evening that Kavanaugh is "a good man" but his "appearance of impropriety has become unavoidable."

She added that with Supreme Court appointments lasting a lifetime, "Those who seek these seats must meet the highest standards in all respects, at all times. And that is hard."

In a twist, Murkowski said she will state her opposition but vote "present" as a courtesy to Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Kavanaugh supporter who is attending his daughter's wedding in Montana this weekend. Murkowski said she'd use an obscure procedure that lets one senator offset the absence of another without affecting the outcome. That would let Kavanaugh win by the same two-vote margin he would have received had both senators voted.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, who has repeatedly battled Trump and will retire in January, said he would vote for Kavanaugh's confirmation "unless something big changes."

Vice-President Mike Pence planned to be available Saturday in case his tie-breaking vote was needed, which now seems unlikely.

Limit on debate passed

In a procedural vote Friday that handed Republicans an initial victory, senators voted 51-49 to limit debate, defeating Democratic efforts to scuttle the nomination with endless delays.

That vote occurred amid smouldering resentment by partisans on both sides, on and off the Senate floor.

"What left-wing groups and their Democratic allies have done to Judge Kavanaugh is nothing short of monstrous," the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, said before the vote.

Watch Grassley defend Kavanaugh:

U.S. Senate judiciary committee chair Chuck Grassley says the treatment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been 'monstrous.' 1:29

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the fight "a sorry epilogue to the brazen theft of Justice Scalia's seat." That reflected Democrats' lasting umbrage over Republicans' 2016 refusal to even consider Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

When Trump nominated Kavanaugh in July, Democrats leapt to oppose him, saying that past statements and opinions showed he'd be a threat to the Roe v. Wade case that assured the right to abortion. They said he also seemed ready to rule for Trump if federal authorities probing his 2016 campaign's connections to Russia try to pursue him in court.

Yet Kavanaugh's pathway to confirmation seemed unfettered until Ford accused him of drunkenly sexually assaulting her in a locked bedroom at a 1982 high school gathering. Two other women later emerged with sexual misconduct allegations from the 1980s.

Democrats also challenged Kavanaugh's honesty, temperament and ability to be nonpartisan after he fumed at last week's Judiciary hearing that Democrats had launched a "search and destroy mission" against him fuelled by their hatred of Trump.

Kavanaugh would replace the retired justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a swing vote on issues including abortion, campaign finance and same-sex marriage.

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