WASHINGTON — Now that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has met privately with almost every Republican senator, it's becoming increasingly clear President Donald Trump's pick for the bench is running into little GOP resistance to confirmation this fall.
The conservative appellate judge is breezing past swirling questions over his views on executive power and his approach to gay marriage, abortion and other legal issues. Kavanaugh left some Republicans with the impression that his earlier reluctance to investigate sitting presidents would not impede the Russia investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Other senators avoided such queries, preferring more of a get-to-know-you session with the 53-year-old judge to hear his story.
Ask the GOP senators what they're learning in their private chats and they'll tell you the following: Kavanaugh loves his family. Lives for the law. And, like the president he once worked for, George W. Bush, he's open and chatty, the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with.
“I just wanted to understand — try to understand — what's in his heart,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who added that he was saving his legal questions for Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. “He impresses me as the sort of guy that would actually talk and get to know the people who clean his office.”
The practice of Supreme Court nominees making “courtesy calls” to senators seems to have begun around 1970, according to the Senate Historical Office. That year, nominee Harry Blackmun made the rounds ahead of his confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Some senators use the visits to probe the nominee's judicial philosophy, while others treat it more like a photo op.
Since being nominated July 9, Kavanaugh has met with 47 senators — all but one of them Republican — at a rapid clip. The meetings have created growing momentum for Kavanaugh among Republicans that Democrats may be hard-pressed to stop. Even one early skeptic, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, is now a yes vote.
Still, the most challenging meetings for Kavanaugh are yet to come.
Two key Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, remain among the holdouts. They plan to meet with the judge this month. But even those two independent-minded senators, who both support abortion rights, may be unwilling to break with their party and prevent Trump from filling a second seat on the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh is also likely to meet with Democrats in mid-August, and they are certain to press the judge on a variety of hot-button issues. Only one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has met with Kavanaugh so far, and a person familiar with that session said Kavanaugh stressed his independence.
The Republicans who have already met with Kavanaugh are leaving the meetings increasingly confident in Trump's choice.
Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said he asked the judge what he holds important.
“We talked about how the partisanship really has created this gridlock and therefore it weakens us in terms of standing up,” said Perdue, a close ally of the president. “He says, ‘Well, my desire all along has been to be a very studious defender of the Constitution and try to interpret the law, not make law.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said he was satisfied that Kavanaugh's earlier skepticism of special counsel investigations — like Mueller's probe — was rooted in his work on Kenneth Starr's team investigating Bill Clinton, rather than the events of today. “I don't see how the two can be intertwined,” Tillis said.
GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said he did not broach the topic because he is already convinced Kavanaugh's writings are not applicable to Mueller's probe. “I didn't take it that we shouldn't do investigations. At all,” Lankford said.
“The fact of the matter is Judge Kavanaugh is going to sit on the United States Supreme Court when we're through,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Late last week, Democrats lost ground in their fight to unearth some 1 million documents related to Kavanaugh's time as staff secretary at the Bush White House, a three-year stint on his resume that Republicans say is irrelevant to his qualifications for the court. Republicans have not asked for the records, and the National Archives has told Democrats it cannot process their request without GOP support.
Kristine Lucius, the executive vice president for policy at the advocacy group The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, is pushing for the full release of the Kavanaugh documents and not those being handpicked by Republicans. She objects to “the notion that we would just have a curtain within three years of his record.”
Democrats now plan to take their case directly to Kavanaugh, potentially turning the “courtesy calls” into cross-examination sessions of his thoughts on Bush-era topics like the detention of terrorism suspects and signing statements on legislation. Those subjects are likely covered in the documents Republicans refuse to seek.
Republicans counter that there are already plenty of ways to scrutinize Kavanaugh's record. He has handled more than 300 cases since 2006 as an appellate judge. Already the Judiciary Committee has requested some 125,000 files from Kavanaugh's other years in the White House counsel's office and 20,000 from his work on the Starr investigation.
And with a 51-49 GOP majority in the Senate, narrowed with the longtime absence of the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Republicans will be able to confirm Kavanaugh if they hold together and prevent defections.
GOP Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska said she was preparing a floor speech to deliver after her meeting with Kavanaugh, whom she found to be an incredibly open, honest man.
“I don't know how anyone could oppose him,” she said. “I really don't.”
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