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Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Fields Questions From Senators


Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh today is fielding the first round of questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members. And there are lots of questions on executive power, abortion rights, gun control and the treatment of military detainees. Democrats have been trying to get Kavanaugh to admit to conservative beliefs or show he was an activist on the court. And protesters continue to disrupt the day of wall-to-wall questions. NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell has been watching this play out on Capitol Hill. And, Kelsey, there's been a lot of pressure on Democrats today, right?


CORNISH: Did they manage to get Kavanaugh to reveal his thinking in any way on these key issues?

SNELL: A lot of the focus has been on Kavanaugh's thinking on those traditional issues for the Democrats' base - like you mentioned, like gun control and health care and abortion rights. But there's also been a lot of talk about presidential power. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy in particular focused on what - whether Trump could pardon himself. And Dianne Feinstein, who's a top Democrat on the committee from California, talked about whether or not a president must comply with a subpoena. And more or less, Kavanaugh avoided those specific questions. And that's basically what he did when it came to questions about upholding the Affordable Care Act as well. I think this exchange with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is pretty representative of how that all went.


SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Have I recited it accurately? And is it still true today that you can give no assurance that you would uphold a statute...

BRETT KAVANAUGH: Well, sir, judges like to explain their decisions.

WHITEHOUSE: Yep, but I get to ask the questions. Usually you get to ask the questions because you're the appellate judge. But today for half an hour, I get to.

SNELL: Well, Kavanaugh kind of went on after that to namecheck the other previous nominees, like Ginsburg and Kagan, to say why he couldn't answer the questions. And while Democrats didn't exactly land blows, they gave certain activist groups some fodder. And we're already seeing tweets from ACLU and Planned Parenthood using those answers to support their case that he would make significant changes to health care and abortion rights if he gets on the court.

CORNISH: Republicans clearly still are confident that Kavanaugh will be confirmed. So what did they set out to do today?

SNELL: Well, they're trying to paint a picture of Kavanaugh as a judge who is well within the conservative mainstream. And they kind of want to soften his image. Nearly every Republican has talked about his family life or that he coaches teams in his free time. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham lamented that Kavanaugh should be approved with an overwhelming vote and blamed hyperpartisanship.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: You live in unusual times, as I do. You should get more than 90 votes, but you won't. And I am sorry it is gotten to where it has. It has got nothing to do about you.

SNELL: Republicans are just kind of excited that they're back up to a full 51 votes in the Senate as of this afternoon. Jon Kyl, he was sworn in this afternoon to replace Senator John McCain. He was already one of Arizona's senators from 1995 to 2013. And he's been committed to filling the seat until at least the end of the year. I think the most interesting thing about that though is that he was the person in charge of guiding Kavanaugh through his nomination process. And now he'll be in a position to vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation.

CORNISH: What was the mood like in the room today - especially compared to yesterday, which was pretty feisty?

SNELL: It was absolutely feisty yesterday. And today, it was a little bit less tense. Some senators were making jokes. And there was this whole exchange where Dianne Feinstein reminded Kavanaugh to thank his wife, and there were some laughs. Early on, we could hear though that Feinstein and other Democrats were getting frustrated with some of the protests - particularly right at the beginning when a group of protesters were being removed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Justice Jackson...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ask them to suspend.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't vote for Kavanaugh.


SNELL: Yeah. And so about 70 people were arrested yesterday, and about 40 were arrested so far today. And people have been popping up and being removed throughout all of the questioning. But they persist in their going forward.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you for your reporting.

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