Sen. Jeff Flake will support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, securing a critical vote for his confirmation, but only with strings attached.
Flake released a statement backing Kavanaugh only hours after harrowing testimony about a sexual assault accusation against the appeals court judge. Then, in a dramatic twist a short time later, the Arizona Republican called on the Senate GOP to delay a floor vote on Kavanaugh for no more than a week while the FBI investigates the claim.
He still voted in favor of Kavanaugh as the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced his nomination in an 11-10 party-line vote. Nothing currently guarantees that the Senate will delay the vote or that the FBI will open a probe. At least one Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, quickly joined Flake in calling for an investigation. However, they will need more senators to join them to force Republican leaders' hand in delaying a vote.
Flake's shift followed conversations with Democratic colleagues on Friday afternoon during a tense Judiciary Committee meeting. It also came after a confrontation in the morning during which two women who said they were sexually assaulted tearfully criticized Flake's support of Kavanaugh as the senator silently looked at the ground.
On Thursday, college professor Christine Blasey Ford emotionally accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in the early 1980s. The judge angrily denied the allegation later in the day.
Flake's statement of support gave a major boon to Kavanaugh, as it left only two Republican senators who have not supported the judge.
"Yesterday, we heard compelling testimony from Dr. Ford, as well as a persuasive response from Judge Kavanaugh," Flake said in a statement Friday. "I wish that I could express the confidence that some of my colleagues have conveyed about what either did or did not happen in the early 1980s, but I left the hearing yesterday with as much doubt as certainty."
He continued: "What I do know is that our system of justice affords a presumption of innocence to the accused, absent corroborating evidence. That is what binds us to the rule of law. While some may argue that a different standard should apply regarding the Senate's advice and consent responsibilities, I believe that the constitution's provisions of fairness and due process apply here as well. I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh."
Ahead of a committee meeting Friday morning, two women who say they were sexual assault survivors confronted Flake as he stood in a Capitol elevator. The exchange was captured by CNN.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you. You're telling me that my assault doesn't matter," one unidentified woman tearfully said to Flake as he silently looked at the ground. "That what happened to me doesn't matter. And that you're going to let people who do these things into power. That's what you're telling me when you vote for him."
For more than five minutes, Flake occasionally nodded and said "thank you" to the two women who talked to him, but did not say anything else in response to their concerns. Flake spent much of Friday morning's Judiciary Committee meeting frowning and looking down after the confrontation.
Later in the panel's meeting, Flake's Democratic friend, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, and other senators left the room with him. The vote was delayed past the scheduled time of 1:30 p.m. as Flake talked to various senators in a room attached to the main meeting area. He then returned and called for the FBI investigation.
Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, meaning two GOP lawmakers can sink Kavanaugh's confirmation if they and members of the Democratic caucus oppose him. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and a few of their red-state Democratic colleagues still have not taken a public stance on Kavanaugh.
If they call for an FBI investigation, they could force Republican leaders to delay the vote as Flake desires. Murkowski reportedly said she agreed with Flake.
One of those red-state Democrats, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, came out later in the day as a "no" vote on Kavanaugh.
"The allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh are disturbing and credible," Donnelly said in a statement Friday. "While I would gladly welcome the opportunity to work with President Trump on a new nominee for this critically important position, if Judge Kavanaugh's nomination comes before the full Senate for a vote under these circumstances, I will oppose it."
Two other Democrats running for re-election in states Trump carried in 2016 — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have yet to say how they plan to vote. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat running this year in pro-Trump Montana, also said he would oppose Kavanaugh. Manchin wants a floor vote delayed in order to allow the FBI to conduct a weeklong investigation.
The GOP is moving quickly to attempt to confirm the federal judge after Thursday's hearing. If the party can confirm him, it likely assures a conservative majority on the top U.S. court for decades to come.
— CNBC's Tucker Higgins contributed to this report.