Conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh plunged into his confirmation battle Tuesday, meeting face-to-face with Senate leaders in what promises to be an intense debate over abortion rights, presidential power and other legal disputes that could reshape the court and roil this fall's elections.
Kavanaugh is a favorite of the GOP legal establishment, and his arrival as President Donald Trump's nominee was greeted on Capitol Hill with praise from Republicans and skepticism from Democrats. There were also pledges of open minds by key senators whose votes will most likely determine the outcome.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Kavanagh "one of the most thoughtful jurists" in the country but warned of an onslaught of "fear mongering" from liberal groups trying to derail the nomination. He said it was clear that many Democrats "didn't care who the nominee was at all. Whoever President Trump put up they were opposed to."
Chuck Schumer, the Senate's Democratic leader, said his party's lawmakers did indeed care who the nominee was — and what his views were on such thorny issues as abortion and Trump himself.
Trump "did exactly what he said he would do on the campaign trail — nominate someone who will overturn women's reproductive rights," the New York senator said.
He also argued that the president chose the man he thought would best protect him from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Kavanaugh has written about a need to free the executive branch from intrusive criminal investigations.
"Not only did Mr. Kavanaugh say that a president should not be subpoenaed, he said a president shouldn't be investigated," Schumer said.
The confirmation marathon is expected to drag on for months, and no date has yet been set for hearings. GOP leaders, with a slim majority in the Senate, are anxious to have Kavanaugh in place for the start of the court's session in October — and before the November congressional elections.
But that may be a tall order. His confirmation is complicated by an unusually long record as an appellate judge and as a George W. Bush administration official — and also his role as part of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Kavanaugh, just 53, could serve on the high court for decades.
As he arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday, he huddled with McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence and former Sen. Jon Kyl. He also met with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will determine whether to recommend him to the full Senate.
McConnell, who has been influential in shaping Trump's remaking of the judiciary, said, "What we'd like to see is a few open minds about this extraordinary talent."
Grassley said a speedy confirmation wasn't necessarily the goal. The vetting process, he said, is "going to be thorough and going to be done right." Pence told reporters that Kavanaugh was a "good man."
Republicans have little margin of error for the final vote unless a few Democrats can be brought onboard. McConnell has a 51-49 Senate majority, narrowed further by the absence of ailing Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But they hope to gain support from a handful of Democrats who are up for re-election in states where Trump is popular.
So far, Democrats are uniting behind a strategy to turn the confirmation fight into a referendum on conservatives' efforts to undo abortion access, chip away at health care protections under the Affordable Care Act and protect Trump from Mueller.
Senators will be seeking access to Kavanaugh's writings and correspondence, reams of documents that will take weeks to compile and even longer to review, giving opponents ample opportunity to wage a political battle. Protesters have filled the steps of the Supreme Court in recent days.
By fall, the nomination may turn on a handful of senators who will be under enormous pressure ahead of the midterm elections.
The Democrats are trying to pressure two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to oppose any nominee who threatens the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The two have supported access to abortion services, and activists have already begun sending wire coat hangers, as a symbol of an era when abortion was illegal, to Collins' office.
She said that with Kavanaugh's credentials, "it's very difficult for anyone to tell me that he's not qualified for the job." But she added that other issues also would come into play for her, including "judicial temperament" and "judicial philosophy."
Murkowski said, "We've got some due diligence that we've got to do."
At the same time, Republicans are urging a half dozen Democratic senators, largely those who are up for re-election in Trump-won states, to back the president's choice.
Among their targets are Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as Doug Jones of Alabama, who is not up for re-election but represents a conservative state in the Deep South.
Kavanaugh in the past has made statements about respecting precedent that could help in winning over senators, particularly Murkowski and Collins.
In his 2006 confirmation hearing to become a federal judge, he said, "I would follow Roe v. Wade faithfully and fully" because it's "binding precedent" that has been "reaffirmed many times."
Yet there's little doubt that Kavanaugh, a solidly conservative, politically connected judge, would shift the nation's highest court further to the right.
A product of the Republican legal establishment in Washington, Kavanaugh is a former law clerk for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Like Trump's first nominee last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh would be a young addition who could help remake the court for decades with rulings that could restrict abortion, expand gun rights and roll back key parts of" Obamacare."
Trump unveiled his pick showbiz style, in a suspense-filled prime-time televised announcement Monday evening. He called Kavanaugh "one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time."
"Brett Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews — rave reviews — actually, from both sides," Trump said Tuesday, a stark mischaracterization of Democrats' comments, as he left the White House for a weeklong overseas trip. "And I think it's going to be a beautiful thing to watch over the next month."