WASHINGTON: The US Senate confirmed Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday in the closest such vote in more than a century, marking a major win for the president’s drive to move the country’s political institutions to the right.
The Senate voted 50-48 to approve Kavanaugh as more than 1,000 protesters rallied in Washington against a nominee who has been plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct as a young man and had questions raised over his candour and partisan rhetoric.
The prolonged nomination battle has roiled American politics and passions — the vote was disrupted on several occasions by angry protests from the gallery — but handed Trump one of the biggest victories of his presidency.
It drew the line under a bruising nomination process defined by harrowing testimony from a woman who says Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were teenagers — and by his fiery rebuttal.
The two-vote margin of victory made it the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote since 1881 — and by far the most contentious since Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Kavanaugh was due to be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts at a private Supreme Court ceremony later Saturday.
The confirmation means Trump has succeeded in having his two picks seated on the court — tilting it decidedly to the right in a major coup for the Republican leader less than halfway through his term.
“I applaud and congratulate the U.S. Senate for confirming our GREAT NOMINEE, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, to the United States Supreme Court,” he tweeted moments after the vote.
“Later today, I will sign his Commission of Appointment, and he will be officially sworn in. Very exciting!”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has railed against Kavanaugh’s critics, said he was “proud” of his Senate colleagues while Vice President Mike Pence, who presided in the Senate during the vote, called it a “historic day for our country.”
It reflects a high water mark of the Trump presidency: Republican control of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the judiciary’s top court.
But the Kavanaugh spectacle, fueled by extraordinary accusations and counter-claims in nationally televised hearings, and tense battles over an 11th-hour FBI investigation to address the assault allegations, has inflamed political passions.
Hours before the vote, scores of protesters broke through barricades and staged a raucous sit-in protest on the US Capitol steps.
As protesters chanted “Shame!” and “November is coming!” police took several dozen down the steps and put them in plastic flex-cuffs.
With tensions simmering, Pence got an earful from activists who booed and chanted “Vote them out!” as he walked to his motorcade.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation process has laid bare the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and the political polarization of America just a month before midterm elections.
His elevation to the Supreme Court also stands as a demoralizing defeat for Democrats who had battled hard to block the 53-year-old judge at all costs.
But senators from the party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton insisted it would galvanize Democrats at the ballot box.
“It is a sad day, but the recourse will have to be on election day,” Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar told reporters.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation had already been all but sealed Friday, when he won the support of key Senate Republican Susan Collins and conservative Democrat Joe Manchin.
‘Presumption of innocence’
Kavanaugh replacing retiring justice Anthony Kennedy was controversial from the start — but the initial focus was solely on the conservative views held by the married father of two.
His ascent to the Supreme Court was thrown into doubt last week after university research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford testified that he had sexually assaulted her at a Washington area gathering in the early 1980s.
The brutal hearing sparked a supplemental FBI dive into Kavanaugh’s background and a weeklong delay of the Senate vote.
While many Republicans said they were satisfied with the FBI probe, Democrats and Blasey Ford’s lawyers called the investigation insufficient.
Collins — a moderate Republican from Maine — said Kavanaugh was entitled to the “presumption of innocence” as the allegations against him had not been substantiated.
Immediately after that speech, Manchin of West Virginia, who faces a tough re-election in a state Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016, announced his support.
‘Praying for the country’
Kavanaugh’s nomination seals a conservative majority on the nine-seat high court, possibly for decades to come.
There were loud protests, both in Washington and in other cities across the United States as the vote went ahead.
Hundreds were arrested on Capitol Hill this week — including several dozen in the hours leading to the final vote.
Authorities took the rare step of putting up low metal fencing around the Capitol, keeping the public some distance from the building. But protesters overran the barricades and defiantly claimed the Capitol steps.
After the confirmation, activists gathered in their hundreds on the steps of the Supreme Court, chanting slogans and banging on its closed front doors.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican to oppose Kavanaugh, said it was time for the Senate — and Americans — to “heal” after such a divisive few weeks.
She acknowledged the anguish of the protesters who interrupted the historic Senate vote, telling reporters afterwards that “I was closing my eyes and praying. Praying for them, praying for us and praying for the country.”