WASHINGTON - The Senate was poised to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court justice Saturday afternoon by one of the narrowest margins in the institution's history, capping off a brutal confirmation fight that underscored how deeply polarized the nation has become under President Donald Trump.
After the remaining votes fell into place on Friday, Democrats, in a show of defiance, spent all night making impassioned floor speeches against the nomination that continued into Saturday morning. They voiced fears about how Kavanaugh would rule on an array of issues, including abortion rights and executive power, and highlighted the allegations of decades-old sexual assault that roiled his confirmation process for the past three weeks.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that by confirming Kavanaugh, the Senate would be sending a deeply troubling message both to the nation's girls and women - "your experiences don't matter" - but also to its boys and men.
"They can grab women without their consent and brag about it," Murray said. "They can sexually assault women, laugh about it. And they're probably going to be fine. They can even grow up to be president of the United States or a justice on the Supreme Court."
Murray was first elected to the Senate in 1992, in the wake of the chamber's 52-to-48 vote to put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, the last time issues of gender were so starkly highlighted in a confirmation process. If confirmed as expected, Kavanaugh will join a nine-member court that includes Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill.
The Democratic speeches, delivered to an almost-empty chamber, were part of their strategy of using the full 30 hours of debate time automatically granted to senators, allowing them to delay the final vote on Kavanaugh until late afternoon.
As they spoke Saturday morning, protesters who were predominantly women gathered between the Capitol and Supreme Court chanting, "yes means yes, no means no, Kavanaugh has got to go," and "this is what democracy looks like."
Trump suggested otherwise in a tweet: "Women for Kavanaugh, and many others who support this very good man, are gathering all over Capital Hill in preparation for a 3-5 P.M. VOTE. It is a beautiful thing to see - and they are not paid professional protesters who are handed expensive signs. Big day for America!"
Republicans, basking in their anticipated victory, chose not to speak on the floor Friday night but made television appearances to tout Kavanaugh and their near-unity on his nomination.
"This is a great day for America," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during an appearance on Fox News. "The mob was not able to intimidate the Senate."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., delivered a blistering, two-hour speech, starting at 4 a.m., in which he read testimonies from more than 30 rape and sexual assault survivors who had written to him after Kavanaugh's nomination.
"I've received a lot of letters," he said to a silent chamber, almost an hour into his speech. "I'm going to read more of them now."
By the early morning hours, the Democratic reaction to the disappointment of Kavanaugh's expected nomination had started to crystallize. Several senators framed it as a deep injustice that would lead to lasting cultural change.
The confirmation of Kavanaugh, 53, would cement a conservative majority on the nation's highest court as he replaces the swing vote of retired justice Anthony Kennedy.
The final vote is set for late Saturday afternoon and needs just a simple majority in the 51-to-49 GOP Senate.
The Senate advanced Kavanaugh on a procedural vote on Friday, 51-to-49, with one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, voting in support of Kavanaugh, and one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, breaking with her party to oppose his advancement.
The margin on Saturday is also expected to be two votes. But Murkowski said Friday that while she will oppose Kavanaugh's nomination, she will ask to be recorded as "present" on Saturday's vote in a courtesy to Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who will miss the vote due to his daughter's wedding.
The practice, called a "pair between senators," ensures that the vote margin would be the same had Daines been there, and Murkowski said she was doing so as a reminder that "we can take very small, very small steps to be gracious with one another."
A two-vote margin would be the narrowest for a confirmed Supreme Court justice since 1881 when the Senate confirmed Stanley Matthews, a nominee of President James Garfield.
Trump nominated Kavanaugh in July to succeed Kennedy, a move that triggered an intense partisan battle over the court's future well before the allegation of misconduct from Ford. But that accusation, as well as subsequent claims by other women, led the nomination fight to collide with the emotional #MeToo movement that has upended politics, the media and other industries long dominated by men.
Kavanaugh's initial accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, alleged that he sexually assaulted her at a high school gathering in suburban Maryland in the early 1980s. Two other women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of misconduct while in high school and college.
Kavanaugh has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 2006 and previously worked in George W. Bush's White House. He served as a clerk to Kennedy in the early 1990s alongside Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first nominee to the Supreme Court.
At a forum at their alma mater Princeton on Friday night, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor worried about how the bitter partisan battle over Kavanaugh will affect the court's reputation.
"Part of the court's strength and part of the court's legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court in the way that people see the rest of the governing structures of this country now," said Kagan, nominated to the court in 2010 by President Barack Obama. "In other words, people thinking of the court as not politically divided in the same way, as not an extension of politics, but instead somehow above the fray, even if not always and in every case."
Even if the court splits 5 to 4 on the nation's most important issues, Sotomayor said, it is important for the public to see that doesn't create animosity among the nine justices.
"We have to rise above partisanship in our personal relationships," said Sotomayor, nominated by Obama the year before Kagan. "We have to treat each other with respect and dignity and with a sense of amicability that the rest of the world doesn't often share."
With Kavanaugh replacing Kennedy, the court will be composed of five consistent conservatives, all nominated by Republican presidents, and four consistent liberals nominated by Democratic presidents.
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The Washington Post's Gabriel Pogrund in Washington and Ezra Austin in Princeton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.