Kavanaugh to Take Center Stage at Supreme Court Nomination Hearings

September 3, 2018 Updated: September 3, 2018    

Nearly two months after being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, Judge Brett Kavanaugh will take center stage on Sept. 4 as a series of confirmation hearings commence on Capitol Hill.

Barring a major surprise, the show will span 30 hours, starting with Kavanaugh’s opening statement and lawmakers’ comments on the first day, reaching an apex on the second day with 10 hours of questions, and wrapping up after witness statement on day three.

If confirmed, Kavanaugh would shift the nation’s top court to a solid conservative majority, imbuing the largely predictable hearings with historical significance. As a result, expect Democrats to mount a political-theatrics offensive while most Republicans seek to give the nominee some space to breathe.

Kavanaugh is no stranger to contentious confirmation hearings. His nomination to the Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 was stalled for three years after Democrats blocked the confirmation.

The Process

The first day of the hearings, Sept. 4, is reserved for Kavanaugh’s opening statement as well as the statements of the Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The next day, senators will get to question Kavanaugh.

Democrats are likely to press Kavanaugh on how he would rule on cases related to abortion, gun rights, and presidential powers, among other issues. He’s been rehearsing his answers in mock sessions for weeks.

Republicans, most of whom are already set on voting for Kavanaugh, are expected to use their questions on topics that would help Kavanaugh make his case for confirmation.

If no major issues arise on Sept. 5 to merit a second day of questioning, Sept. 6 is reserved for outside witness statements, a session that rarely offers any surprises.

Usually, the judiciary committee will hold an open meeting within one week of the conclusion of the hearings to determine what recommendation to report to the full Senate. According to the Congressional Research Service, the committee practice is to recommend the nominee to the Senate, even if a majority opposes the confirmation.

Once the Senate receives the recommendation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will schedule a day and time for a floor debate and vote. McConnell has said that he expects to have a final vote on Kavanaugh before Oct. 1.

The Issues

Democrats are sure to highlight the fact that the White House blocked 102,000 pages of documents related to Kavanaugh’s work as White House staff secretary for President George W. Bush, whose lawyers combed through documents from that time and decided that 27,000 of them were protected under “constitutional privilege.”

The other 102,000 pages of documents related to Kavanaugh’s record weren’t turned over for other reasons. The committee has had access to more than 415,000 pages on Kavanaugh’s background, Bush’s lawyer said in a letter.

The Kavanaugh team has already handed over more than a million pages of documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee, more than any other Supreme Court nominee in history, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Democratic senators are expected to grill Kavanaugh on a range of ideologically divisive issues, looking to either pressure him into making a misstep or angling for an exchange that could provide media fodder.

“Ideally, a Supreme Court hearing is used to examine the qualifications and character of a nominee. It’s an opportunity to question the nominee about his or her jurisprudence,” Grassley wrote in an editorial for USA Today. “But this is Washington after all. With the cameras rolling and millions tuned in, some may try to turn this important evaluation into a political spectacle.”

The Vote

The committee hearings will lead to a full Senate vote, where Republicans hold a single-vote majority.

Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, were thought to be swing votes on the confirmation. But in a sign that they are preparing to vote with the other Republicans, both have recently backed their party’s push to restrict the number of documents Kavanaugh would be required to produce.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also briefly was counted as a swing vote after stating that he would keep an open mind about Kavanaugh. But, after meeting with the judge, Paul announced that he would be voting to confirm Kavanaugh.

Meanwhile, three Democratic senators are still considered swing votes. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of (D-N.D.), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) all voted to confirm Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. All three senators are running for re-election in states Trump won in 2016 and may break from the party line again to improve their electoral standing.

Prior to 2017, a successful filibuster on Supreme Court nominations would force a 60-vote supermajority requirement. Republicans changed Senate rules in 2017 so that a Supreme Court nominee would require a simple majority to confirm. Senate Democrats first invoked the so-called nuclear option five years ago under then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), eliminating the 60-vote threshold to break filibusters on most presidential nominees; Supreme Court nominations were excluded from that change.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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