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Battle lines drawn for Senate showdown on Trump court nominee

Sep 24. 2018
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By Agence France-Presse
Washington

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US lawmakers drew battle lines Sunday ahead of a dramatic showdown over the fate of Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, after a university professor who accuses the judge of sexual assault agreed to testify publicly in the Senate.

Christine Blasey Ford agreed to give her testimony Thursday after an increasingly ugly weeklong standoff that saw her forced to leave her California home as she faced death threats and the president openly attacked her credibility.

"Despite actual threats to her safety and her life, Dr Ford believes it is important for senators to hear directly from her," Ford's lawyers said in a statement quoted by US media.

Kavanaugh, who strongly denies the assault allegation, has said he wishes to testify as soon as possible to clear his name from Ford's claims that he attacked her at a high school party in the 1980s.

The federal judge has calendars from the summer of 1982 he plans to share with senators showing he was out of town most of that time with no indication of the party of concern, The New York Times reported.

The two parties will testify separately -- first Ford, followed by Kavanaugh, who will respond -- the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed.

At stake is not only the fate of Trump's hand-picked Supreme Court nominee, but also Republican chances in November's midterm elections that face increased risk if the polarizing confirmation battle drags on.

Lindsey Graham -- a member of the panel that must approve Kavanaugh's nomination before it goes to the full chamber -- summed up the position of many Republicans by saying he did not expect Ford's testimony to change his mind.

"What am I supposed to do? Go ahead and ruin this guy's life based on an accusation?" he told "Fox News Sunday." "Unless there's something more, no, I'm not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh's life over this."

While Republicans are pushing to get the judge approved as soon as possible, Democrats have supported Ford's call for an FBI investigation into her allegations -- a move that would potentially provide additional information, but also delay the proceedings.

The panel's top Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stressed in a letter to Trump that background investigations on judicial nominees have been reopened more than 10 times in the past three months alone when new facts came to light.

"There is no legitimate basis for you to continue blocking the FBI from investigating this important matter," they wrote.

"These serious allegations should be fairly and impartially considered before the Senate moves forward."

It noted that during the nomination process for Clarence Thomas to the high court, the panel had requested an FBI investigation of accuser Anita Hill's claims of sexual harassment -- and investigators completed their probe in just three days.

Danger of defections

According to a YouGov poll conducted for CBS, more than half of Americans want an FBI investigation before a vote on Kavanaugh, but more than two thirds of Republicans want a vote within days.

Republicans, who hold a paper-thin majority in the Senate, can ill afford defections if Kavanaugh is to be approved.

"If one Republican senator should decide that Dr Ford's allegations, assertions, are true, and that they are serious, it could make a big difference in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said on ABC's "This Week."

After days of relative restraint, Trump lashed at Ford on Friday, questioning the credibility of her allegations, and in doing so may already have hurt his nominee's chances with a senator from his own party.

Trump contended that Ford's decision to wait so late before going public shows the incident probably was not "as bad as she says" -- even if this runs counter to what experts say is the typical reaction of sexual assault victims afraid or embarrassed to report.

Susan Collins -- a Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee -- said she was "appalled" by Trump's tweet, stressing that incidents of sexual assault were known to be chronically under-reported.

Trump's outburst saw an outpouring of sympathy for Ford -- and outrage at the president -- as thousands of women, and men too, shared why they had kept silent after being assaulted, under the Twitter hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.

Republican lawmakers are well aware they will be navigating a minefield during Ford's testimony, where they risk further alienating women voters if they are seen as too harsh towards her -- and potentially triggering a backlash at the ballot box come November.

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