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WATCH LIVE: Senators open debate on Kavanaugh ahead of key vote

WASHINGTON — Senators plunged into opening arguments Friday as Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court faced a crucial vote. Key Republican senators remained undeclared amid the allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh followed by weeks of intense disagreements that have divided the nation.

The Senate gaveled open with the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, lauding the appellate court judge’s deep credentials and lashing out at the “left wing” groups he said have tried to take down President Donald Trump’s nominee as “nothing short of monstrous.”

Kavanaugh is “extremely impressive” and a pillar of his community and the legal profession, the Iowa senator said, and the attacks on him are worse than those in even the most divisive court battles of the past and “shamed us all.”

READ MORE: What senators are saying about the FBI’s Kavanaugh report

Tensions ran high at the Capitol as onlookers began filing in through tight security to watch the vote from the gallery while protesters staked out positions.

The 53-year-old judge made what was in effect his closing argument by acknowledging he became “very emotional” when forcefully denying the allegations at a Judiciary Committee hearing last week. He was trying to brush back fresh concerns about his temperament and impartiality.

“I said a few things I should not have said,” he wrote in an article published Thursday evening. But he said he remains the same “hardworking, even-keeled” person he has always been. “Going forward, you can count on me,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

The unusual op-ed, as well as a late boost from Trump at a campaign rally in Minnesota, appeared aimed at winning over the three undeclared senators from the slim GOP majority — Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — and one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who also had yet to announce his position.

Friday’s vote was a procedural one to end the debate, and some fence-sitting senators could conceivably vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination but still hold out their support ahead of a final confirmation roll call over the weekend.

White House officials were cautiously optimistic going into the final push. Trump has been talking to staff and Republican allies in the Senate as the vote draws near, said a person with knowledge of the process but not authorized to speak publicly.

The White House hoped the last-minute words from Kavanaugh would ease lingering anxieties with the undecided senators.

But a top Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said he was unmoved by the walk-back as too little too late for the conservative judge who he said had shown his partisan stripe.

“I understand his emotion and his anger, this has to be a terrible ordeal for him and his family,” Durbin said on “CBS This Morning.” ”But the fire in his eyes when he turned into this partisan screed is something I’m not going to forget.”

Ahead of Friday’s voting, Republicans emerged confident that a new FBI investigation into the allegations unearthed no corroborating details, they said. But a level of uncertainty lingered as Collins and Flake spent hours Thursday poring over confidential FBI documents in a secure basement briefing room at the Capitol long after others had left.

Even without locking in support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed ahead trying to move Trump’s nominee forward in what would be an election year win for his party. The Republican leader has little room for error with his party’s slim 51-49 hold on the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence will be available to break a tie, but that has never happened for a Supreme Court nominee, according to the Senate Historical Office. A final vote is expected Saturday.

Complicating the math, one Republican, Sen. Steve Daines, said he was going to attend his daughter’s wedding back home in Montana on Saturday regardless of the possible weekend vote. Daines told The Associated Press in a statement he’s going to walk his daughter down the aisle.

Tensions have been high at the Capitol with opponents of Kavanaugh, including survivors of sexual assault, confronting senators in the halls and holding vigil across the street at the Supreme Court. Supporters of Kavanaugh also turned out.

Trump said the protesters’ “rage-fueled resistance is starting to backfire at a level nobody has ever seen before.” He was referring to polling that shows some improvement for Republicans heading into the midterm election.