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Senate Hearing For Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Gets A Controversial Start


It was late in the day by the time Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh gave his opening statement to senators at his confirmation hearing today. He said over the dozen years that he's been a federal appeals court judge, he's ruled for people on all sides of the issues - sometimes workers, sometimes businesses, sometimes environmentalists, sometimes coal miners.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: In each case, I have followed the law. I do not decide cases based on personal or policy preferences. I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge. I am a pro-law judge.

CORNISH: He had been expected to begin speaking much earlier, but committee Chairman Chuck Grassley had trouble getting things underway. Grassley was met with interruptions and complaints like this one from California Democrat Kamala Harris.


KAMALA HARRIS: We cannot possibly move forward, Mr. Chairman, with this hearing...

CHUCK GRASSLEY: I extend a very warm welcome to Judge Kavanaugh...

HARRIS: We have not been given an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing...

GRASSLEY: ...To his wife, Ashley.

HARRIS: ...On this nominee.

CORNISH: Protesters also added to the chaos over the nominee. And this is all before Kavanaugh takes senators' questions. That starts tomorrow. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joins us now from Capitol Hill. Hey there, Kelsey.


CORNISH: So not a smooth start, to say the least. How are things going at this point?

SNELL: Things are pretty tense in the hearing room. Senators are kind of snapping at each other. You have protesters kind of jumping up at pretty intermittent intervals. And Chairman Grassley was lamenting a little bit ago that he kind of let mob rule take over the committee early on and he didn't take charge earlier in the day.


GRASSLEY: I've always said to myself when advising other people, either you run the committee, or the committee runs you.

SNELL: And he got cut off. And we had to cut him off there before he got interrupted because you had some really loud protesters yelling. And he said, I let the committee run me this time. It was like that throughout the hearing, and it has been just kind of chaotic. You've got women dressed as handmaids from "The Handmaid's Tale" and lines snaking down the hallways of people trying to get into the public areas.

CORNISH: In the meantime, in the room, you had Senate Democrats still talking about their fight to receive documents about Brett Kavanaugh's time in the White House, right? It's been an issue for weeks.

SNELL: Yeah, and it's been mostly a circular argument. Democrats say they need more documents. Republicans say they've produced more than any other nominee. And it seems to be going nowhere. But the thing is the Democrats keep saying it's not about the volume of documents. It's about the percentage of documents that are out there that they've had available to them. They're also frustrated because they got a big dump of documents last night that they haven't even had a chance to look at.

CORNISH: So this has been their fight. But at the same time, they're under political pressure from activists who are like, let's stop talking about documents. Why don't we actually talk about issues like health care and abortion rights? So how much did that come up?

SNELL: That came up quite a bit. And the thing to remember here is that everybody gets about 10 minutes. Every senator's supposed to get about 10 minutes to talk. And those issues have come up from Democrats. But one of the things that keeps coming up a lot is the use of executive power. Now, the - maybe the most pointed came from Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who said this with Kavanaugh sitting just a couple of feet away.


MAZIE HIRONO: We are here to decide whether or not to rubber stamp Donald Trump's choice of a preselected political ideologue nominated precisely because he believes a sitting president should be shielded from civil lawsuits, criminal investigation and prosecution no matter the facts.

SNELL: That's pretty dramatic. And like I said, he was sitting right there throughout all of this - the protesters, the fighting between senators and comments like that. Kavanaugh has been sitting in the room.

CORNISH: It doesn't look like Republicans are planning to budge. And I don't know what the vote count is at this point, but I'm going to guess that they don't have enough to block Kavanaugh, right? What do Democrats do?

SNELL: They tell me they haven't run out of options, but none of the Democrats - staffers or senators - I've talked to would say what their other options exactly are. In part, that's because they just don't have many.

CORNISH: So what's the strategy about the way they played out this morning?

SNELL: Strategy has been described to me as trying to keep Democrats together in their opposition so that it shifts the pressure onto uncommitted Republicans like Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. They're both in favor of abortion rights, and they voted against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

So Democrats think these hearings will be a chance to get the public support behind them and pressure those moderate Republicans to push back. And that's kind of tricky because the progressive activist base wants really different things out of Democrats than, say, the suburban moderate voters that they need to come out in the 2018 midterm election.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.