WASHINGTON—Sen. Susan Collins, who has clashed with Republican leaders over taxes and health care, on Friday played the role they needed from her: A Republican woman pledging the decisive vote to elevate Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh,” she said at the end of a 45-minute speech laying out her rationale—starting with his judicial opinions, continuing through her thinking about his rights to a fair process, and weighed against accusations from California research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford that he had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers.
“Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them,” Ms. Collins said. “In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”
It was a decision reached after private consideration, public harassment so intense that she needed a security detail, and lobbying at the highest levels.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine announced she will vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, giving him the support needed to win the lifetime appointment. In her speech to the Senate, she defended Judge Kavanaugh while acknowledging Christine Blasey Ford's "sincere, painful and compelling" testimony and the legitimacy of the "#metoo" movement. Photo: AP
President George W. Bush, in whose administration Judge Kavanaugh had served as staff secretary, called Ms. Collins to persuade her of the judge’s merits. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had lunch with her on Friday. She was accompanied to a secure facility to review a new Federal Bureau of Investigation background report by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), who had worked with the judge in the Bush administration.
And she was one of a handful of senators who were the primary audience for a Wall Street Journal opinion piece penned by Judge Kavanaugh in which he said that he might have been too emotional in last Thursday’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, White House officials said.
The purpose of the column was partly to reassure Ms. Collins and a few others senators that Judge Kavanaugh would be fair-minded if elevated to the Supreme Court, the officials said. They conceded that some senators voiced doubts about his temperament, and said the op-ed was seen as a way to allay concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s fitness for the High Court.
Republicans rallied around Ms. Collins after her speech Friday. Mr. McConnell, normally taciturn around the press, told reporters her speech was “one of the best I’ve ever heard in my time in the Senate.” On the Senate floor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) gave her a hug.
“To be able to walk through all her reasons for supporting him and also being able to rebut the testimony of Dr. Ford is something only she could have done,” Marc Short, formerly the Trump administration’s congressional liaison, said on CNN.
Protesters Raise Voices Over Kavanaugh
Hundreds of demonstrators crowded a Senate office building to oppose his confirmation
Activists hold a protest and rally in opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh near Times Square in New York City.
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Progressive groups criticized her. “Susan Collins has betrayed the people, and especially the women and survivors, of Maine,” wrote the groups Be a Hero, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and the Maine People’s Alliance, after Ms. Collins announced she would vote for the judge.
A website raising money to support an eventual challenger to the senator's 2020 re-election crashed as she announced her support for Judge Kavanaugh, according to the chief executive of the site.
Ms. Collins, 65 years old, comes from a political family; her parents both served as mayor in their hometown of Caribou, Maine, and her father was in the state legislature. And she herself has been in politics for her entire career.
Ms. Collins served as an intern for former Republican Sen. Bill Cohen of Maine, the perch from which she first met John McCain, then the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. A political moderate, she won election to the Senate in 1996 with less than 50% of the vote. At the time, the Almanac of American Politics wrote that she “brings to the Senate little experience in elective office” and “has not shown great vote-getting prowess.”
Last year, Ms. Collins opted to stay in the Senate instead of running for governor of Maine, concluding she could play an important role at a consequential time. And she has already made her presence known.
Ms. Collins provided one of the three Republican votes last year that helped torpedo GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She voted against President Trump’s Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, nearly taking her down, too.
Ms. Collins had also used her leverage to win concessions, such as withholding her vote on last year’s tax measure to gain a more generous medical-expense deduction, albeit a temporary one. She hosted bipartisan talks earlier this year that helped end a government shutdown triggered by a fight over immigration policy.
None of those showdowns, however, drew as much attention as her Kavanaugh decision—a decision that cut between her advocacy for women’s issues and traditional Republican Party roots.
“Believe me, I struggled with it for a long time,” Ms. Collins told reporters on Friday. She said that while she was “very disturbed by the allegations” against the judge, there “was a lack of corroborating evidence no matter where you looked.”
—Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.