Senate Republicans say they saw Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsKavanaugh in op-ed defends getting ‘emotional’ GOP senator may miss Kavanaugh vote for daughter’s wedding Bitter partisan battle over Kavanaugh enters final chapter MORE (R-Maine) from the start as the key to confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and worked together as a team to cajole her when appropriate, but also to give her space to make her own decision.
In the end, the strategy paid off. And when Collins delivered a nearly 40-minute long speech on the Senate floor Friday afternoon announcing her support for Kavanaugh, it seemed as if her vote was never really in doubt.
Collins is known for her independence but she also has a reputation among her Republican colleagues for being with them on big votes when she is most needed.
Republicans have known for weeks that Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) strategy was to keep his caucus unified as long as possible to put pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to come up with enough votes entirely out of his own conference.
That meant Kavanaugh’s nomination would come down to two Republican moderates, Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). If McConnell could keep one of those two on board along with the rest of his conference, he would win a major victory for President Trump.
Every other GOP senator was expected to vote yes as soon as Trump announced Kavanaugh, a 12-year veteran of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and a senior staffer in the George W. Bush administration, as his second Supreme Court pick in July.
Republicans control 51 seats and could afford no more than one defection.
GOP leaders thought if they could demonstrate they had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh on their own, it would put pressure on centrist Democrats facing tough reelections races in November to also vote yes.
In the end, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) was the only Democrat to come out in support of Kavanaugh, but it was clear he was keeping a close watch on what Collins was going to do.
Manchin met with Collins and Murkowski — as well as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who unexpectedly emerged as a third undecided GOP vote relatively late in the process — in Collins’s Capitol hideaway last week the evening after Kavanaugh testified before the Judiciary Committee.
Confirming him was a high-stakes task for McConnell, who rated the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017 — after keeping the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia vacant for nearly a year — as one of his biggest professional accomplishments.
McConnell spearheaded the defense of Kavanaugh in a very public way. He was much more outspoken than he was in pushing ObamaCare repeal legislation in 2017 or even last year’s tax reform package, letting other members of his conference wage much of the public relations battle.
The GOP leader warned members of his conference that failing to get Kavanaugh confirmed only weeks before the midterm elections would throw the Republican base into disarray and prove disastrous.
He sternly instructed Republicans on the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 18 to “Get it done” and reminded them that the Supreme Court would be a top priority of conservative voters in November.
McConnell was solely in charge of the timing of the nomination and pushed hard to keep it from getting delayed.
“This is all McConnell. This is not leadership. It’s one man that’s going to decide,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.
McConnell wanted to keep the schedule on track after news surfaced last month that Christine Blasey Ford was accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school party 36 years ago.
But he agreed to postpone a floor vote for a week once Collins, Murkowski and Flake teamed up to pressure him to give the FBI more time to investigate the charges.
In his back pocket, McConnell could count on his strong personal relationship with Collins, a fellow member of the Appropriations Committee, who shared his work ethic and pragmatism.
That relationship was on display shortly before Collins announced her support for Kavanaugh when McConnell invited her to have lunch with him in the Senate dining room.
McConnell does not have as strong a relationship with Murkowski, whom he opposed in her 2010 reelection race after she lost the Republican senate primary to conservative candidate Joe Miller, whom she went on to defeat in a write-in campaign.
Murkowksi was the only Republican who voted against advancing Kavanaugh on a key procedural vote Friday. She indicated late Friday that she opposed his nomination, but would ask that her vote be marked as "present" as a courtesy to her colleague Sen. Steve Daines (R) to allow him to attend his daughter's wedding back home in Montana.
Throughout the increasingly contentious nomination fight, McConnell was worried about the impact it would leave on the Senate and what damage it would inflict on future Supreme Court debates, a concern that Collins shared.
“I think he saw this was a challenge not just to Brett Kavanaugh but to the Senate and the Senate confirmation process is in jeopardy as a result of what happened, and I think we wanted to rescue Kavanaugh and rescue the Senate at the same time,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is close with both McConnell and Collins.
Collins said in her floor speech that she was also worried about the potential impact on the future confirmation debates if Kavanaugh was rejected due to an uncorroborated sexual assault allegation.
She said the leaked allegation turned the confirmation process into “a dysfunctional circus” and voiced hope “It will cause the Senate and indeed all Americans to reconsider how we evaluate Supreme Court nominees.”
Collins voiced concerns about the sexual assault allegation, but she said she was overall pleased with Trump’s pick of Kavanaugh and viewed him as a consensus-building judge who would uphold the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade and serve as a check on the president when necessary.
She consulted often with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of her closest friends in the Senate, who served with Kavanaugh in the George W. Bush administration and introduced him before his first round of hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Portman said he served mostly as a sounding board for Collins, listening carefully to her as she weighed the pros and cons of the nomination.
“She’s a friend and I think I have a relationship where I can be a listener. I don’t try to push her. She’s very independent. Susan wants to do what right. Period. It’s not about politics for her,” Portman said.
He noted that Collins viewed Kavanaugh as a better nominee than some of the other names on Trump’s short list of candidates.
“It’s a point that she and I share,” he said, adding he was also glad that Kavanaugh was picked. “This guy’s a consensus builder, much like his former boss Justice Kennedy, in the sense of bringing people together.”
“That’s what he’s done on the court, D.C. Circuit,” he added, noting that Kavanaugh once clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he is poised to fill.
Portman met with Collins for about 45 minutes on Wednesday morning and he was spotted escorting her Thursday afternoon out of the secure room in the Capitol Visitors Center, where senators reviewed the FBI report that failed find any corroboration of Ford’s allegations.
Collins praised Kavanaugh as soon as Trump announced him in July, asserting that it would be difficult for anyone to say he wasn’t qualified for the high court.
On Friday, she highlighted his ability to build consensus over more than a decade on the D.C. Circuit and noted that Merrick Garland, the chief judge of that court, whom President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, joined in more than 96 percent of the majority opinions authored by Kavanaugh.
Collins also consulted with fellow female senators in the GOP conference, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said that both of them were bothered by the fact that Democrats did not share Ford’s allegations with the entire Judiciary Committee until shortly before the panel was scheduled to vote.
“We’ve talked all along through the process,” she said. “The conversation was mostly getting their opinion on the FBI investigation or what happened at the hearing and discussing some of the ramifications about the vote one way or the other.”
Capito said she agreed with Collins that it was important to give the FBI extra time to review Ford’s allegations so that “everybody was satisfied you investigate the latest.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said keeping Collins in the fold and the rest of the GOP team unified was a group effort.
“We’ve all been talking to each other constantly,” he said.