ANALYSIS: President Donald Trump’s pick for a pivotal spot on the Supreme Court already put the Senate at the confluence of the nation’s contentious political and legal movements. But a woman’s allegation of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh — dating back decades to when he was a teenager — heaps cultural importance as well on what senators do at this moment.
Senators, particularly Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Republicans who have relentlessly insisted on a confirmation vote this month, now have to decide what to do amid a “Me Too” movement that has exposed how these types of allegations have been hidden, mishandled or simply ignored by powerful men in the past.
The Senate is a slow-moving institution often stuck in its traditions, and it is still criticized for the way Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegation against Justice Clarence Thomas was handled in 1991. McConnell, now in his sixth term, has called the Supreme Court appointments under Trump the most important part of his Senate legacy.
The Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Kavanaugh on Thursday afternoon.
The clock is ticking, and the pressure is fierce.
Hill’s allegation remained controversial even 25 years later, when it became the subject of an HBO series. Now, Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor, has come forward publicly — after initially requesting anonymity — to describe the attack in detail to The Washington Post in an article published Sunday.
“When Anita Hill came forward to share her experiences of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, she was treated as though she were the one accused of wrongdoing,” Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. “The Senate and the media have a responsibility to learn from the lessons of the past.”
Pause or move ahead?
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee initially responded through a written statement that raised questions about the timing of the allegation and the motives of Democrats, who had already opposed Kavanaugh because they expect him to side with Republicans on issues such as abortion, LGBT rights, affirmative action and more.
It appeared committee Republicans — 11 men — weren’t interested in reopening the confirmation hearing or delaying a vote.
That was echoed in conservative circles. “If the GOP does not stand up to this character assassination attempt on Kavanaugh, every judicial nominee moving forward is going to suffer last minute sexual assault allegations,” conservative pundit Erick Erickson wrote Sunday on Twitter.
But that changed Sunday afternoon. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a consistent voice in support of Kavanaugh, was the first committee Republican to take a different approach.
“If Ms. Ford wishes to provide information to the committee, I would gladly listen to what she has to say and compare that against all other information we have received about Judge Kavanaugh,” Graham said in a news release. “If the committee is to hear from Ms. Ford it should be done immediately so the process can continue as scheduled.”
Kavanaugh has denied the allegation — as Thomas did in 1991 — which frames the issue into the divisive question of whether to believe the accuser or the accused.
Hill, who also initially did not want to come forward publicly, had her confidential statement to the committee made public in 1991 just before a final confirmation vote for Thomas on the Senate floor. The Judiciary Committee reopened the confirmation hearings to hear from Hill, and some of the same criticisms of her from that time appeared Sunday on social media.
Hill criticized the all-male Senate panel in an open letter at the end of 1997 book, “Speaking Truth to Power,” and the National Women’s Law Center quoted from it Sunday after The Post published the Ford allegation.
“Neither the issue of harassment nor the nomination was served by a presumption of my untruthfulness or a process skewed in favor of whoever was able and willing to engage in the dirtiest political ‘gamesmanship,’” Hill wrote in her book.
Congress has tried to police itself, a sign of the momentum the “Me Too” movement has generated this year as women come forward to expose years of sexual misconduct in the movie and television industries, politics, media and other workplaces.
The House passed a bill in February that would crack down on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and update the onerous process for employees to report harassment and discrimination. The Senate passed its own version in May. Negotiations have stalled on the measures.
The election of Trump has left the Republican Party open to criticism. During the campaign, women said Trump sexually harassed or assaulted them years ago. In response, Trump threatened to sue them.
Pressure on Republicans
The Democratic caucus, with 49 votes, is powerless to stop Kavanaugh without the help of Republicans — a fact that only ratchets up the pressure for Republicans. Because the majority party can speed Kavanaugh through the confirmation process, it is now up to Republican senators to decide whether Ford's allegation will pump the brakes.
Committee Democrats — led by ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — have already called for a delay. In 1993, in the wake of the Hill hearings, Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois became the first women to serve on the committee.
Much of the political pressure will fall on Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both moderate Republicans who were already in the conversation as possible Republican “no” votes because of their views on the importance of access to abortion and health care.
If they appear to waiver, Republicans might slow down the process.
Watch: Judiciary Democrats Object to Kavanaugh Vote Plan, But Date is Set