WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake often feels conflicted walking the hallways of the U.S. Capitol, torn between his own conservative philosophy and a Republican Party he can rarely identify with in the Trump era. But this week, the retiring senator's anguish appeared even greater, compelling him to forge a major compromise to reopen an FBI background investigation into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a way to try to save a broken Senate process on his way out.
He sat through two days of committee meetings as Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee insulted each other and their motives.
In Thursday's hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school, he listened to a furious, red-faced Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accuse Democrats of an "unethical sham" that "fair-minded" senators would see through — a comment that seemed to be directed in part at Flake. Democrats complained loudly about an “abuse of power.”
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Every time he stepped outside the Judiciary Committee hearing room, the Arizona Republican was swarmed with protestors and reporters alike. He was peppered with questions about where he stood on the nomination each moment while protesters opposing Kavanaugh got face-to-face with Flake to insist that his actions will send a message to woman and girls through out the country.
In one particular intense exchange, Ana Maria Archil, held open the elevator doors while Flake was trying to get to the committee room to begin the debate to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Archil told Flake about her sexual assault in an emotional, griping exchange.
But when asked if it was that chaos and emotion displayed by Archil that led him to single-handedly stop the momentum to confirm Kavanaugh by early next week, Flake shook his head and said “no.” He expanded his answer later, saying that “everything” had an impact.
But he made it clear that it was mostly about stopping the near-complete breakdown of Senate decorum and procedure and lack of comity.
Despite a press statement announcing his support of Kavanaugh Friday morning, just minutes before the meeting to vote on his confirmation was to begin, Flake still appeared unsettled, realizing just how broken the Senate was.
“I got to the committee and Republicans were yelling at Democrats and Democrats were yelling at Republicans and offering, or threatening, to walk out," Flake said. "And I just thought, we can't go on like this, we gotta try to bring people together a little and do something that Republicans and some Democrats at least could agree to. And that was to reopen the FBI investigation.”
He reached out to Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat that Republicans see as a partner in bipartisan efforts, and insisted that they need to come up with a way to “lend more legitimacy to this process.”
Flake said he thinks the country needs to see a fair, bipartisan process — even if the final vote for Kavanaugh end up being strictly along party lines — in order to restore trust between the two parties appeared nonexistent during the committee's deliberations.
Democrats have been complaining about how Republicans have handled Kavanaugh’s confirmation process since he was nominated. They point to the lack of documents being released, the lack of an investigation into the allegations, the lack of bringing in additional witnesses to testify about the allegations made against him.
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Republicans, on the other hand, believe every Democratic complaint has been an attempt to stall Kavanaugh’s confirmation until after the midterm elections in the hopes that Democrats would win back the majority in the Senate.
Coons hinted at the discussions he was having with Flake during the committee’s public meeting Friday. “I worry sincerely about the message we are sending to assault survivors if we plow ahead with this nomination despite the seriousness of the allegations," he said. "And I have conveyed to my friends and colleagues that I wished we would take a one-week pause.”
Flake, sequestered in the ante room off the committee room, met with Coons and a rotating cast of Democrats. They discussed the possibility of a short delay to accommodate time for a background investigation to be conducted by the FBI.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, two undecided senators who are critical to Kavanaugh’s confirmation chances, were involved in the conversations via the phone, sources say.
They all agreed that they wouldn’t support Kavanaugh’s confirmation in a final Senate vote without an FBI investigation, forcing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump to either agree to it or see Kavanaugh's nomination defeated.
“In order to have something that our country accepts as due process, we’ve got to do more than we’ve done,” Flake said.
It’s the argument he made to his Republican colleagues who had hoped to have Kavanaugh confirmed by Tuesday.
After that, even Graham was more calm.
"I don’t expect any [Democrats] to vote for the guy, but if we ask the FBI to look at what’s in front of us, no later than a week, no longer than a week, and they would say that would be a better process, that would be progress," Graham said. "And Jeff [Flake] is trying his best to bring the country together and vote the best way he knows how."
Flake announced his retirement last year, knowing he would have likely lost his primary because he refused to saddle up next to President Donald Trump, whom he thinks is doing damage to the country through his divisive rhetoric.
In his waning days in the Senate, the Arizonan has built into every floor speech, nearly ever tweet and statement he makes, his concern about the breakdown of national unity and civility and the degradation of the Senate.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who is on the Judiciary Committee too, said he too had decided to support the call for a pause in the confirmation process and joined Flake's appeal to his colleagues to fix a badly damaged Senate.
“If this institution has any aspirations to be a great deliberative body, again, we need to have a lot more people in the Senate who take a long term perspective on what America needs," Sasse said, "and not a short term perspective on how they can play pundit all day, every day."