US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Professor Christine Blasey Ford. Photograph:( Reuters )
The Senate Judiciary Committee opened their session under extraordinarily tense circumstances.
Brett Kavanaugh's US Supreme Court nomination was expected to pass a first Senate hurdle Friday following dramatic testimony from both the conservative judge and the woman who says he attacked her -- but first, lawmakers hurled abuse at each other over the process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee opened their session under extraordinarily tense circumstances, with America's political polarization on full display on Capitol Hill as Kavanaugh's supporters and opponents squared off in hearing rooms and protest-filled hallways.
The panel was set to vote at 1:30 pm (1730 GMT) along party lines, with a narrow victory for President Donald Trump's pick virtually ensured after key Republican Jeff Flake said he would back the judge.
Kavanaugh's nomination would then go to the full Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 edge.
Trump whole-heartedly reaffirmed support for Kavanaugh to join the nation's top bench after the judge furiously refuted the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, 51, who told a packed hearing room he had sexually assaulted her 36 years ago.
The emotional, duelling accounts sent Republican and Democratic senators into a full uproar of insults and festering recriminations over the nomination process.
Some Republicans said the Senate was seeing its darkest days since the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings of 1991, or even the Joseph McCarthy hearings of 1954.
Democrats shot back that the 53-year-old Kavanaugh was aggressive and partisan in his testimony.
"I have never seen a nominee for any position behave in that manner," senior Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said.
After the hearing, the nation's leading legal organization, the American Bar Association -- which initially endorsed Kavanaugh -- called for the vote to be postponed until an FBI investigation could be carried out.
But the Senate committee of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats plowed ahead, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted the full Senate would hold a confirmation vote "in the coming days."
"There is simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court on the basis of evidence presented to us," Grassley said.
Democrats expressed outrage and some walked out of the committee meeting Friday after Republicans unanimously backed moving forward to a vote.
"It's almost surreal," veteran Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy told his colleagues, saying the Senate was "no longer an independent branch of government."
Female Democratic members of the House of Representatives stood in the back of the room in protest, while demonstrators in the hallways chanted "November is coming!" -- a reference to the upcoming midterm congressional elections. Several were arrested.
Flake, an outspoken Trump critic, arrived late at the judiciary vote after he was confronted by irate women who said they were victims of sexual assault.
"Don't look away from me! Look at me and tell me that it doesn't matter what happened to me, that you'll let people like that go to the highest court on the land," one weeping woman told an uncomfortable Flake as he stood in an elevator.
Two Republicans would need to defect, with all Democrats voting in opposition, in order to sink Kavanaugh in the full Senate vote.
With Flake now apparently backing the nominee, attention increases on two moderate Republican women senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy, who had been a swing vote on a court now divided between four conservative and four liberal justices.
The allegations by Blasey Ford, a psychology professor in California, have threatened to derail Trump's bid to tilt the court to the right.
A defiant Kavanaugh came out with guns blazing on Thursday, insisting the assault never happened, accusing Democrats of destroying his reputation and condemning his confirmation battle as a "national disgrace."
"I categorically and unequivocally deny the allegation by Dr Ford," Kavanaugh said, his voice shaking with anger as he fought back tears.
"I've never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not in college, not ever."
In addition to Blasey Ford, two other women have come forward with allegations of assault against Kavanaugh, against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.
As Thursday's marathon hearing wrapped up, Trump weighed in to stand by his man.
"Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him," he tweeted, minutes after the hearing adjourned.
During four hours of emotionally intense testimony, Blasey Ford said she was "100 percent" certain that Kavanaugh was the person who assaulted her at a high school party in suburban Maryland in 1982.
She said a drunken Kavanaugh and a friend of his, Mark Judge, pushed her into a bedroom, that Kavanaugh pinned her down and muffled her cries as he tried to pull off her clothes.
Democrats have pleaded with Grassley to subpoena Judge to appear before the committee to answer their questions, but the chairman has refused.