The Senate's top Republican accused Democrats on Tuesday of railroading Brett Kavanaugh by using decades-old, "vague, unsubstantiated and uncorroborated" claims of sexual misconduct to try sinking his shaky Supreme Court nomination.
"Justice matters. Evidence matters. Facts matter," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as Republican leaders fought to shore up GOP senators' support for Kavanaugh, who has denied the allegations.
The leader of the chamber's Democrats fired back, demanding that McConnell apologize to Kavanaugh's chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, for his assertion that Democrats are using the allegations to wage a smear campaign against the nominee. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said McConnell's comment "demeans many, many women" who have gone public with sexual harassment accusations, saying, "They're doing a noble thing."
The intensifying combat over Kavanaugh came two days before the Senate Judiciary Committee plans a pivotal, election-season hearing at which both Kavanaugh and Ford are due to appear separately. That session, certain to be must-watch television for the nation, looms as a do-or-die wild card for Kavanaugh in which a split-second facial expression, a tear or a choice of words by either witness could prove decisive.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said by detailing the alleged 1980s incident when she and Kavanaugh were high schoolers, Ford exposed herself to ridicule and attack "even by the president of the United States in his tweets." President Donald Trump tweeted sarcastically last week that Ford would have reported the assault to authorities if the incident was "as bad as she says."
On the Senate floor, McConnell tried undermining Kavanaugh's two accusers' stories. But he also focused on the need to treat Kavanaugh fairly as Republicans continued their robust defense of the 53-year-old, now a judge on the District of Columbia circuit court of appeals.
"Vague, unsubstantiated, and uncorroborated allegations of 30-plus-year-old misconduct, where all the supposed witnesses either totally deny it or can't confirm it, is nowhere near grounds to nullify someone's career or destroy their good name," McConnell said.
Despite the forceful rhetoric and solid Kavanaugh support by most Republicans, his backing from several GOP senators was unclear, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Arizona's Jeff Flake and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski. With the GOP's Senate control hanging on a razor-thin 51-49 margin, defections by any two Republican senators would seal his fate if all Democrats vote "no."
Asked Tuesday if there should be a fresh FBI investigation of Kavanaugh, Murkowski said, "Well, it would sure clear up all the questions, wouldn't it?" Democrats have repeatedly demanded a renewed FBI probe, but that's been rejected by Trump and Republicans. Collins said she remained undecided about Kavanaugh.
One frequent Trump critic, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was clearly leaning toward Kavanaugh.
"I go into the hearings with very positive feelings about him, and I hope Thursday goes well," Corker told reporters.
Besides the allegations themselves, both parties must assess how the nomination fight is playing six weeks before an Election Day when Democrats could capture control of Congress. With all 11 GOP Judiciary committee members male, Republicans have hired a female attorney who would question Ford for them, said a GOP aide who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
On Monday, Ford advisers wrote to Judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., complaining that GOP staff had told them of the hiring of an unnamed ``experienced sex crimes prosecutor'' to interrogate Ford and requested a meeting with "her."
"This is not a criminal trial for which the involvement of an experienced sex crimes prosecutor would be appropriate," wrote Ford adviser Michael Bromwich.
On Monday, Brett Kavanaugh said he wouldn't let "false accusations drive me out of this process" as he agreed to a television interview, an extraordinary step for a high court nominee.
Kavanaugh, 53, said on the conservative-friendly Fox News Channel that he wasn't questioning that his initial accuser, psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, may have been sexually assaulted in her life. But he added, "What I know is I've never sexually assaulted anyone," a remarkable assertion for a nominee to the nation's highest court.
During the Fox interview, Kavanaugh said that while there were high school parties with beer and he wasn't perfect, "I'm a good person. I've led a good life.'' He said he'd never done anything like the episodes his accusers have described and said he didn't have sexual intercourse until "many years" after high school.
On Sunday, The New Yorker magazine reported that Deborah Ramirez described a 1980s, alcohol-heavy Yale dormitory party at which she said Kavanaugh exposed himself, placed his penis in her face and caused her to touch it without her consent.
Ford has said Kavanaugh tried removing her clothes and covered her mouth to prevent screams after he pinned her on a bed during a high school party.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday "we would be open" to having Ramirez testify before the same Judiciary Committee hearing at which Ford and Kavanaugh are scheduled to appear Thursday. There has been no indication that GOP Chairman Chuck Grassley is considering that.