Her usually reliable Republican ally, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had just broken with the party against the confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That left Ms. Collins as the sole Republican supporter of abortion rights who could derail a man seen as a serious threat to Roe v. Wade — not to mention that he had been accused of sexual misconduct.
Ms. Collins did not derail him.
Instead, she took to the Senate floor Friday afternoon and delivered a reasoned, carefully researched, 45-minute point-by-point defense of her support for Judge Kavanaugh.
“We’ve heard a lot of charges and countercharges about Judge Kavanaugh,” Ms. Collins said. “But as those who have known him best have attested, he has been an exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband and father.”
As for the accusations against him, she said, “In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be.”
She made perhaps the best Republican case so far for the embattled judge, one that essentially sealed his promotion to the high court, even though her vote will haunt her politically for the remainder of her career, and quickly drew the fury of the left as a betrayal of the #MeToo movement. It was Ms. Collins on display as a studious former staff member, marshaling information gleaned in extensive conversations with Judge Kavanaugh and legal experts to show how she had arrived at the conclusion that he was fit to serve and posed no danger to access to abortion.
“Protecting this right is important to me,” said Ms. Collins, who said a two-hour, face-to-face session with Judge Kavanaugh and an hourlong follow-up call, as well as an exhaustive review of his opinions, had persuaded her that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade. “His views on honoring precedent would preclude attempts to do by stealth that which one has committed not to do overtly.”
In addition to Roe, Ms. Collins said that a close look at Judge Kavanaugh’s decisions indicated that he would not overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections for pre-existing conditions. Nor, she said, would he be afraid to be a check on the president.
“Judge Kavanaugh has been unequivocal in his belief that no president is above the law,” Ms. Collins said.
The stance of Ms. Collins, who would be up for re-election in 2020, comes at great political risk to a lawmaker who was already besieged by protesters branding her a turncoat on women’s rights. Her pivotal backing of Judge Kavanaugh — Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, confirmed his support for the judge as Ms. Collins concluded her speech — is already inspiring candidates to say they will run against her.
And if she is wrong about Judge Kavanaugh and he joins an effort to overturn Roe, the health care law or other progressive policies, she would no doubt be held responsible.
A crowdfunding group said it had raised $50,000 for a future opponent during 10 minutes of her speech. Other progressive groups assailed her and suggested that her presentation showed that she had made up her mind long ago.
“This shameful vote will be Susan Collins’s legacy,” said Michael Keegan, president of the liberal group People for the American Way. “If he’s confirmed, Brett Kavanaugh will likely serve for decades, and Senator Collins will need to answer for every future decision that her vote makes possible.”
Her fellow Republicans, who were anxious and uncertain about her vote until Friday afternoon, hailed her as a hero for bringing some clarity to the confirmation fight in a moment of such tumult.
“You did a good thing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has worked closely over the years with Ms. Collins and their mutual friend, the late John McCain. “The one thing you wouldn’t do is be intimidated. The one thing you wouldn’t do is destroy Judge Kavanaugh’s life for no good reason. The one thing you wouldn’t do is play politics with the law. God bless you.”
“I doubt if I’ll ever hear anybody more courageous in my political life,” said Mr. Graham, adding that if Mr. McCain were present, “he would be your greatest cheerleader.”
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, who was eager to avoid an embarrassing defeat on the nomination, compared Ms. Collins to Margaret Chase Smith, the first female senator from Maine and a figure idolized by Ms. Collins. Mr. McConnell was stung by Ms. Collins’s opposition to repealing the health care law last year.
“I want to thank the senator from Maine,” Mr. McConnell said. “I’ve not heard a better speech in my time here, and I’ve been here a while. It was absolutely inspirational.”
Ms. Collins had been inclined to support Judge Kavanaugh throughout the process, saying early on — before the accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced — that he seemed highly qualified. Those who know Ms. Collins say she was also worried that if his nomination failed, the next person selected by President Trump could be more conservative and pose an evident danger to abortion rights.
Though she is not on the Judiciary Committee, Ms. Collins played close attention to the hearings. She also joined Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, in pushing for a new F.B.I. investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations, and then returned repeatedly to review the findings in a classified hearing room on Thursday.
As for the sexual misconduct allegations, Ms. Collins expressed sympathy for Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Judge Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers, and said that she believed Dr. Blasey had been the victim of a traumatic attack. However, Ms. Collins said the accusations against the judge could not be corroborated.
“Fairness would dictate that the claims at least should meet a threshold of more likely than not as our standard,” she said. “The facts presented do not mean that Professor Ford was not sexually assaulted that night or some other time, but they do lead me to conclude that the allegations fail to meet the more likely than not standard. Therefore, I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court.”
The different conclusions of Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski on Judge Kavanaugh are a rare break between the two remaining Senate Republican centrists. They are friends, consult constantly, sit next to each other on the floor and typically vote in tandem for political protection in tough situations, as they did in blocking repeal of the health care law. Their positions were publicly uncertain as they entered the Senate on Friday morning for a key procedural vote to determine whether to bring the nomination to a final vote on Saturday.
When Ms. Collins’s name was called, she stood and announced her vote as “aye.” A few moments later and a little further down the alphabet, Ms. Murkowski stood and gave a barely audible “no,” stunning the chamber.
“I believe Brett Kavanaugh’s a good man,” Ms. Murkowski told reporters after her vote. “It just may be that in my view he’s not the right man for the court at this time.” Ms. Murkowski said she worried about his confirmation in light of issues such as “how we ensure fairness and how our legislative and judicial branches can continue to be respected.”
Ms. Collins said she saw confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as a way to help rebuild the image of the court.
“Despite the turbulent, bitter fight surrounding his nomination,” she said, “my fervent hope is that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court so that we have far fewer 5-to-4 decisions and so that public confidence in our judiciary and our highest court is restored.”
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