WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced a final barrage of pointed questions from Democrats on Thursday as his confirmation hearing devolved into heated exchanges among lawmakers over the release of documents.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., released Kavanaugh emails on his views on racial profiling that had been classified as “committee confidential,” setting off angry debate among lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee about how documents have been withheld and mishandled.
Democrats have chafed over the withholding of Kavanaugh documents by President Donald Trump’s White House. Republicans said the release of confidential documents were theatrics by Democrats frustrated with their inability to stop the confirmation.
“It seems like some on the political left are trying to turn this into a circus,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Trump to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, appeared to be headed for a vote and likely confirmation.
Kennedy was considered a swing vote on the high court and confirmation of Kavanaugh, vetted for appointment by the Federalist Society, would likely tip the balance of the nine-member court to the right.
Kavanaugh, 53, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, has ruled in 300 cases over a 12-year period. He also served as an aide to President George W. Bush and was a lawyer with Independent Counsel Ken Starr, whose investigation led to the House impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Judiciary Committee chairman, gushed about Kavanaugh’s command of the law and his character during two days of hearings.
“I’m particularly impressed with your lifetime of public service,” Grassley told the nominee.
But the pleasantries at the beginning of the hearing Thursday turned into verbal fisticuffs among lawmakers over the release of documents.
Democrats accused Republicans of holding a “sham” confirmation hearing and withholding documents about Kavanaugh’s partisan tenure in the Bush White House.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Republicans were “ramrodding” the nominee through for political purposes.
“We’re entitled to all records and I think the public is entitled to all records,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee. “I do think we have a problem.”
The Trump administration withheld 102,000 pages of documents from the committee last Friday, only to reverse course and make 42,000 pages available on the eve of the hearing. Some were stamped “committee confidential.”
Booker released publicly a document that included an email from Kavanaugh from 2002. He said the document’s release posed no threat to national security. Booker said he would accept the consequences.
“I understand the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate,” Booker said.
The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who accused Booker, widely speculated to be a potential Democratic presidential candidate, of behavior “unbecoming of a senator.”
“Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate,” Cornyn said.
When Cornyn suggested Booker could be removed from the committee, something that has not occurred in the past century, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., taunted: “Bring it on.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chastised Cornyn, without speaking his name, for making personal, disparaging remarks about Booker.
Americans deserve transparency, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., in a social media message. She joined other Democrats who are not on the committee in a letter Thursday to White House counsel Don McGahn urging he release Kavanaugh documents.
Later, Grassley said documents sought by lawmakers on the committee, including those by Booker, were made available and cleared for public distribution Wednesday night. Grassley said those claiming they broke committee rules by releasing the documents had failed to do “their homework.”
The committee resumed questioning of Kavanaugh after the partisan bickering.
Democrats tried to pin Kavanaugh down on his abortion rights and presidential power, with Trump and aides under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller and other investigative bodies.
Kavanaugh refused to answer questions about whether he had conversations or meetings with the White House or anyone involved with the Mueller probe.
“You’ve dodged the question, you’ve ducked it,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., charged.
Kavanaugh also sidestepped questions about an email obtained by the Associated Press where Kavanaugh suggested that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that protected a woman’s right to an abortion, was not settled law — contrary to his earlier testimony.
The ambivalence in Kavanaugh’s answers on abortion rights prompted women’s health groups to again urge a ‘no’ vote on his confirmation.
The committee met behind closed doors in executive session at mid-day to review the FBI background check and the agency’s report on the nominee.
As the hearing continued, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus held news conferences and called for the Senate to reject the confirmation of Kavanaugh.
Minority lawmakers in the caucuses claimed a Kavanaugh confirmation would roll back voting rights, civil rights and the legal protections for abortion rights.
But with no major missteps, Kavanaugh appeared headed toward a confirmation vote later this month.
Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate and without defections, Democrats are without the means to stop the appointment of Kavanaugh to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wants a Senate vote on Kavanaugh before the Supreme Court begins its fall session on Oct. 1.