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WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had what may be his most consequential meeting to date in his quest to be confirmed to the high court Tuesday as he sat down for two hours with Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican widely viewed as the most critical swing vote in the Senate.
Collins has not said how she might vote on President Donald Trump's nominee and said she still had not made up her mind after Tuesday's sit-down. But she called the meeting "informative" and "helpful."
Collins is a moderate, pro-choice Republican who has said that recognition of the precedent set in Roe v. Wade will be a factor in her decision. Critics on the left fear that Kavanaugh will be the deciding judge to gut abortion rights.
Collins said that Kavanuagh told her Tuesday that he considered Roe v. Wade to be "settled law."
"We talked about whether he considered Roe to be settled law. He said that he agreed with what Justice Roberts said at his nomination hearings in which he said that it was settled law. We had a very good, thorough discussion about that issue and many others," Collins said.
This is a critical week for Kavanaugh. In addition to the meeting with Collins, he also met Tuesday with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been spearheading his party's opposition to the nomination.
Schumer said Kavanaugh's answers on abortion rights were disappointing. He said Kavanaugh refused to say if Roe v. Wade or the subsequent case Planned Parenthood v. Casey were decided correctly.
"He would not say 'yes.' That should shivers down the spine of any American interested in reproductive freedom for women," Schumer said.
"Judge Kavanaugh has a special obligation to make his views on this topic clear given the president's litmus test that he would only appoint judges who would overturn Roe. On that obligation, Judge Kavanaugh fails spectacularly," he added.
Collins has been the top target of groups on both the left and the right in the fight to confirm Kavanaugh. Conservative groups, especially the Judicial Crisis Network, have run ads in Maine urging her to vote for him. On the left, the group Demand Justice has launched a campaign urging her to vote oppose him.
With Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate, they can't afford to lose any of the 50 GOP senators who are expected to vote on Kavanaugh's nomination.
“I specifically asked Judge Kavanaugh if he had made any commitments or pledges to the Federalist Society, or the White House, about how he would decide any legal issues," Collins added in a statement. "He unequivocally assured me that he had not made any such commitments and he expressed his deep respect for the independence of the judiciary."
But Schumer said he was discouraged that Kavanaugh would not call the Affordable Care Act constitutional and that he would not say that a siting president must comply with a subpoena.
How Collins votes could influence how a handful of Democratic senators running for re-election in GOP-leaning states vote on the nomination as well. If Collins were to vote against his confirmation, it would drastically increase pressure on those Democrats to oppose him or risk becoming the deciding vote on a nominee who could shift the balance of power on the court for decades to come.
An official close to the nomination process tells NBC News that "there’s no misunderstanding about this."
"Collins is a key persuadable vote on both sides, and we're keenly aware of that," the official said, adding that the White House strategy overall regarding Kavanaugh’s confirmation process has been "in part designed to make sure Senator Collins will see him as a qualified judge and not as a partisan figure or activist."
In response, Collins said, "that description is certainly part of what I’m looking for, yes, but I’m also looking for someone who has a judicial philosophy that respects precedent and understands the roll of a judge and will apply independent judgement.”
Democrats and Republicans have been waging a public battle over how many documents from Kavanaugh’s time working in the White House for President George W. Bush will be released. The National Archives said it won’t be able to release all the documents until October but Republicans, who control the schedule, vow to push ahead with the confirmation process before then.
In addition, Democrats are demanding all papers from his time as staff secretary, a request Republicans say is irrelevant to how he would adjudicate cases.
Kavanaugh will meet with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Wednesday. Murkowski, another key senator who has not said if she'd support him, will be the last Republican to interview the nominee.
In the latest trove of documents made public Monday included a memo that Kavanaugh wrote during his time working with Ken Starr on the investigation into President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewisnki.
Pieces of the memo had been quoted previously, but the full memo was released for the first time Monday, In it, Kavanaugh wrote he was "strongly opposed to giving the president any ‘break’ in the questioning regarding the details of the Lewinsky relationship" unless "he either (i) resigns or (ii) confesses to perjury and issues a public apology."
The memo goes on to list a series of explicit questions Kavanaugh suggested Starr ask Clinton as it pertains to his relationship with Lewisnski.
Kavanaugh's position on investigating sitting presidents has evolved over the years. In a 2009 Minnesota Law Review article, he argued that civil lawsuits or criminal investigations "take the president's focus away from his or her responsibilities to the people."