What to watch for during Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford hearing
Dueling appearances Thursday by Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, could be key turning points in the future ideological balance of the U.S. Supreme Court, the balance of power on Capitol Hill, the early makeup of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the enduring power of the #MeToo movement. Given the high stakes, the hearing is likely to rank among the most dramatic moments in an already dramatic political era.
Here’s a look at how we anticipate Thursday will transpire:
Time and location
The hearing is being held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considers, for all other federal judgeships and for appointed positions at the Justice Department.
Proceedings are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET and aides in both parties anticipate they could stretch into the afternoon. Senators will meet the witnesses in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. A dark, wood-paneled room with thick doors, a dark green carpet and floor-to-ceiling windows, the room usually holds just a few dozen spectators and members of the press. It is not TV-friendly, but the more intimate location was chosen in deference to Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct and expressed initial apprehension for testifying at a widely televised proceeding.
Under rules established by the Republican majority, just three television cameras will be permitted in the room to beam images of Ford, Kavanaugh and the 21 members of the committee. It is unclear how many people will be able to pack into the room, but they’ve made extra room for reporters and Ford has been told she may sit at the witness table with two attorneys.
The hearing is set to begin with opening statements from Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the panel’s top Democrat. Grassley and Feinstein are both 85, the oldest members of the Senate, with a combined 63 years of service in the chamber.
Following opening remarks, they are expected to invite Ford to speak. Under rules established by the Republican majority, she can speak for as long as she would like. It is unclear what she might say or describe and for how long she might speak.
Then, the questions begin.
Each senator is allotted five minutes and they may yield his or her time to a colleague or to a special counsel appointed by either party.
Democrats have said they expect to ask their own questions of the witnesses. Republicans are expected to yield to Rachel Mitchell, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor in Maricopa County, Arizona, hired by the committee’s GOP side this week just for this hearing.
“We have an outside person coming in, and I think that’s an appropriate way to do it so that you don’t – the witness should not be uncomfortable,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Tuesday. “By having one person do that on our side I think that’d be a good thing. I wish the Democrats would do the same on their side.”
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on Tuesday that Democrats “are not afraid, as the Republicans seem to be, to confront this situation and deal with the truth.” He said that Democrats on the committee are “going to do it in a careful, dignified, respectful way in an effort to find the facts because the FBI, who should be doing it, isn’t allowed to do it.”
Questioning of witnesses at a congressional hearing by somebody other than a lawmaker is exceedingly rare. In modern times, attorneys appointed by either party quizzed witnesses during the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee in 1998.
Ford has been assured that the committee will take breaks roughly every 45 minutes. Whenever her time is up, Kavanaugh will go next.
He also will be given an opportunity to speak for as long as he would like. Then, senators will each get five minutes to question him.
And then what?
A vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination is tentatively scheduled for Friday morning. Grassley said Tuesday that the committee could always reschedule a vote if there are outstanding issues. Democrats accused Grassley of putting his thumb on the scale by scheduling Friday’s vote, but said that committee rules require a formal notice of the vote at least three days in advance.
If the committee votes on Friday, the full Senate could take a vote as early as Monday. Even if Kavanaugh fails to win a majority vote in the committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, can bring up the nomination for a vote in the full Senate, which he said he plans to do.
So, who’s in the room?
Judge Brett Kavanaugh: He serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered the second-most prestigious federal court after the Supreme Court. He joined the court in 2006, after serving as White House staff secretary to President George W. Bush, as an attorney on Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, and on the staff of the Office of Independent Counsel that launched various investigations that led to the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton.
Christine Blasey Ford: She is a widely-published professor at Palo Alto University, teaching clinical psychology to graduate students. Like Kavanaugh, she grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. She went public with her allegations in a Washington Post report on Sept. 16, detailing for the first time how in the early 1980s, she alleges Kavanaugh and a friend brought her into a bedroom during a party, pinned to her to the bed, groped her clothes and put his hand over her mouth when she screamed. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Beth Wilkinson: A powerful Washington attorney hired by Kavanaugh to defend him against the allegations. She told “CBS This Morning” on Wednesday that her client “will answer whatever questions the committee decides to ask him.” She’s handled dozens of high-profile cases, including several major corporate cases and also served on the team that prosecuted the Oklahoma City bombers.
Debra Katz: Ford’s lead attorney is well-known in Washington for handling cases of workplace discrimination, sexual harassment and whistleblower retaliation, especially in cases brought by federal or congressional employees.
Members of the committee
The 21 members of the panel includes four potential presidential candidates, the oldest and longest-serving members of the Senate and some of the Senate’s newer ideological warriors. They are listed here in the order of seniority, which we anticipate is the order they will be called on to ask questions
Grassley: He’s been chairman of the committee since 2015 and has served in the Senate since 1981. He’s been credited by some, derided by others, for fielding Ford’s accusations and the push to hear from her in public. Grassley vows to oversee a hearing that is “safe, comfortable and dignified” for Kavanaugh and Ford.
Feinstein: California’s senior senator has served since 1992 as part of a wave of women elected to office in the wake of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings that included explosive testimony from Anita Hill, who accused the justice of sexual misconduct. Her office first received Ford’s accusations over the summer and kept them confidential until her Democratic committee colleagues urged her to refer the matter to the FBI. Of note: She’s up for reelection this year and has faced criticism from some California Democrats for not flagging Ford’s allegations sooner for fellow Democrats.
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): He’s one of the few members of the committee who was there when Hill leveled her accusations against Thomas back in October 1991. Hatch is the longest-serving senator, making him Senate Pro Tempore, the third in the presidential line of succession. He apologized for “some injudicious remarks” he made this week about Ford and other accusers. During the hearing, “we’re going to have to sit and listen and hear both sides and go from there. That’s about the extent of what we can do,” he said this week.
Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): He chaired the committee when Democrats last controlled the Senate and this week has blasted GOP colleagues for their handling of the situation. He says that Kavanaugh’s nomination “hangs by a thread, and Republicans will do everything they can—including bullying and silencing a credible victim of sexual assault—in their manic rush to place him on the bench.”
Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): One of the most high-profile, telegenic members of the committee is in the camp of senators willing to hear the accusations, but still likely to stand by Kavanaugh. “If the accusation is enough” to upend the Kavanaugh nomination, “God help us all around here,” Graham told CBS News on Tuesday. He added, “If there’s nothing here new, I am not going to deny him a promotion to the Supreme Court based on a 35-year old accusation where all the facts that we do know about suggest it didn’t happen the way described.”
Richard Durbin (D-Illinois): Once time is yielded to Durbin, expect the questions to get tougher and more partisan. Durbin is the deputy Democratic leader, a partisan pitbull who has a reputation for not holding back in politically-charged hearings. “No one, not any single American, is entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. It’s a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land,” Durbin said in a statement this week, adding later that “The person who fills that seat can make decisions which swing history one way or the other. …And for that reason, all of us – all the members of the Senate and certainly the Senate Judiciary Committee – have to take that seriously.”
John Cornyn (R-Texas): The second-ranking Republican senator has openly questioned the validity and potential political motivation behind the accusations against Kavanaugh. But, he’s vowed to listen to Ford’s accusations with an open mind. “As the father of two adult daughters, as I’m approaching this hearing, I’m thinking, ‘I want to make sure I treat Dr. Ford the same way my daughters would be treated in the event they were making an accusation, or my mother, or my wife.’ To me that’s, I think, the appropriate way for me to think about it.”
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island): He called Kavanaugh’s nomination a “sham” long before accusations against the judge surfaced. Whitehouse is one of several former federal prosecutors or state attorneys general who serves on the panel. During the first round of confirmation hearings, Whitehouse especially attacked Kavanaugh for his views on campaign finance laws.
Mike Lee (R-Utah): Utah’s junior senator is the biggest Supreme Court fan boy on the committee. He attended Supreme Court oral arguments as a child growing up in Northern Virginia, partly to watch his father, who served as an assistant attorney general and later as solicitor general – the top federal prosecutor to argue cases before the high court. Given his legal background and his strong conservative record, he is often mentioned as a potential future Supreme Court justice.
Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota): She’s the first member to be called on that is actively considering a 2020 presidential bid. She’s also facing an easy reelection this year in a predominantly Democratic state, so has little to lose, politically. Klobuchar has been especially critical of Republicans for their decision not to directly question Kavanaugh or Ford. “I believe a lot of it has to do is that they only men on their side,” she said this week on “CBS This Morning.” “They have 11 men. I said the other day that old movie ’12 Angry Men.’ This is instead 11 men trying not to look angry by having a woman do their work.”
Ted Cruz (R-Texas): The former presidential candidate is locked in a tighter-than-anticipated reelection fight back home, so home state reaction to the hearings could be key. This week Cruz and his wife, Heidi, were shouted out of a Washington restaurant – a protest that was criticized by his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Cruz is also a former Bush administration lawyer who ran in similar legal circles with Kavanaugh.
Christopher Coons (D-Delaware): One of the more courtly members left in the Senate, Coons is no fan of Kavanaugh. He said this week that the hearing should be delayed “until there’s an effort by FBI to clarify the details surrounding both Ford’s and Ramirez’s allegations as well as Mark Judge’s recollections.”
Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska): A frequent Twitter critic of Trump, he’s been notably tight-lipped in recent days since the Kavanaugh allegations surfaced. He is among the Republicans seen as a future presidential candidate – either in 2020 or beyond. But he also has talked openly about keeping his time in Washington short – a signal he’d either leave elective politics entirely, or focus instead on winning the White House.
Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut): One of Trump’s fiercest critics, he sharply questioned Kavanaugh during the first round of hearings and has said that the FBI should have investigated the allegations before a hearing. Blumenthal, like Durbin, isn’t likely to hold back and scores points at home for being aggressive with Trump nominees.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona): The president’s most vocal GOP critic on Wednesday begged his colleagues to adopt some civility going into Thursday’s hearing. But, as with most of his pleas for decorum, it’s fallen on deaf ears. Flake has said that Kavanaugh and Ford need to be heard from before the committee votes. Whether Thursday’s testimony sways him, however, is uncertain. And remember: Despite being a frequent Trump critic, he has always said that he is most aligned with the president when it comes to his choice of conservative judicial nominees.
Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): The little-known senator from Hawaii is having a big moment and is quickly gaining fame for her sharp, blunt language. Last week, she called Republican claims that they are seriously handling Ford’s allegations “bullshit” and called on men to “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” That kind of language pays big dividends among Democratic base voters fed up with current political realities. Thursday’s hearing could be a huge breakout moment for her.
Mike Crapo (R-Idaho): He’s solidly in Kavanaugh’s camp, calling the nominee “a judge’s judge.” He also said, “There is no dispute; he is qualified to serve on our nation’s highest court.”
Cory Booker (D-New Jersey): The self-described “Spartacus” of the Senate is also actively considering a 2020 presidential bid and is likely to try to score points in this hearing. During round one, he tried drawing attention to Republican refusals to release certain documents from Kavanaugh’s White House work – but then those documents surfaced publicly. Republican colleagues admonished him for how he handled the situation and threatened formal reprisal. “Bring it,” he told them.
Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina): He’s likely to support Kavanaugh and blasted Democrats “for making a conscious decision to sit on this serious allegation for nearly two months without taking action.” But, he said that he hopes the hearing is “a fair, respectful and evidence-based process for all sides.”
Kamala Harris (D-California): California’s junior senator is also a presumed 2020 presidential candidate. She earned wide attention last year during the dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with former FBI Director James Comey – and her line of questioning during the first hearing with Kavanaugh earned plaudits from diehard Democrats. Shortly after Ford’s allegations became public, Harris defended her on “CBS This Morning,” saying she had “nothing to gain” by stepping forward. “I think it’s going to be about, it comes down to credibility…and it’s going to about listening to what each party has to say, but I believe her,” Harris said.
John Kennedy (R-Louisiana): He’s a walking quote machine – basically Senator Everyman, who often sprinkles his thoughts with his signature Cajun oratory spice. and he’s served up plenty of colorful commentary about this ongoing spectacle. On Tuesday, he said he’d like to see Ford “treated as if she was my daughter, but I’d like to see Judge Kavanaugh treated as if he were my son. That’s the kind of hearing I hope we have. I hope it’s not like the confirmation hearing.”