How Jeff Flake May Have Saved Republicans From Themselves

WASHINGTON — At first blush, Senator Jeff Flake’s last-minute decision to force a new F.B.I. investigation into accusations that Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a teenage girl when they were both in high school appeared to be a disaster for Republicans.

Just as his colleagues in the Senate majority were on the verge of ramming through President Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Mr. Flake, the independent-minded Republican from Arizona serving his last months in the Senate, threw up a roadblock. But in the end, he may have cleared the way for the confirmation and saved Republicans from themselves.

Provided the new investigation doesn’t turn up damaging information, the inquiry could ultimately make it easier for uncertain Republicans to back Judge Kavanaugh as soon as this week. It could also temper the perception that Republicans were much more interested in getting Judge Kavanaugh onto the court as quickly as they could rather than determining the validity of sexual misconduct accusations against him.

“It is reassuring to the public,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and an ally of Mr. Flake, said in an interview. “It shows that Republicans want to make sure that we have all the facts to make an informed decision.”

Democrats are already raising alarms that the inquiry initially hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough will be too constrained to be legitimate. But the one-week limit put on it by Mr. Flake meant from the start that the F.B.I. would be hard-pressed to do a full investigation into all the accusations surrounding Judge Kavanaugh. In addition, Mr. Flake and his allies seemed mainly interested in having the named attendees at a gathering at the center of the Kavanaugh questions be interviewed by experienced federal investigators before voting on the nomination.

Still, it wasn’t what most Senate Republicans wanted. They were more than ready to use their majority to muscle Judge Kavanaugh on to the Supreme Court no matter what Democrats desired. Senate Republicans have been fuming at Democrats for their handling of a letter from Christine Blasey Ford saying she was assaulted by Judge Kavanaugh when both were in high school. With confirmation in sight, they were in no mood to brook more calls from Democrats for further delays and investigations.

But after Mr. Flake’s announcement on Friday that he, Ms. Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, wanted the F.B.I. to take a new look into reports of misconduct by Judge Kavanaugh before a final confirmation vote, President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, had no choice. Without those Republican votes, Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination was probably dead.

Mr. McConnell was clearly unhappy with the sudden turn of events. At a meeting in his Capitol office, he warned Mr. Flake, Ms. Collins and others that another week would only allow time for opponents to churn up more trouble for Judge Kavanaugh while prolonging an ordeal for the nominee and his family. Not to mention that no Senate leader likes to lose control over the agenda to a rump group of members who exert their individual leverage like Mr. Flake and his allies did. It was reminiscent of 2005, when the bipartisan Gang of 14 came together to defuse a showdown over judicial filibusters, undermining Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who was then the majority leader.

Mr. McConnell may have reason to be concerned. The delay could lead to more claims against Judge Kavanaugh. And the investigation could turn up information corroborating elements of Dr. Blasey’s account, posing a tremendous threat to the Supreme Court nominee.

Early indications were that the others identified as being at the house where Dr. Blasey said the episode occurred could add no more to their initial accounts that they had no memory of the event, one that Judge Kavanaugh has said never occurred. On Saturday, President Trump himself said the delay and inquiry could be “a blessing in disguise.”

Democrats spent much of their time during Thursday’s testimony from Dr. Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh urging that the F.B.I. be directed to sort out their conflicting accounts. Republicans now say that Mr. Flake essentially called the bluff of the Democrats and that one of the chief Democratic objections to proceeding to a final vote could be diminished by the investigation.

Only one or two Democrats are even in play as potential votes for Judge Kavanaugh. No matter what the F.B.I. report into the claims against him determines, other Democrats are very unlikely to support him given their opposition to his legal views and what many of them consider dishonest testimony about his work in the administration of George W. Bush.

But a report that finds no new evidence of misconduct could make the decision easier for the few undecided Republicans.

“After an F.B.I. investigation, if we know then what we know now, no one should be standing in the way of this confirmation,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and close ally of Mr. McConnell.

Democrats say they won’t stand by quietly if the F.B.I. is seen as doing only a cursory investigation.

“We can’t have some kind of a perfunctory investigation just to give cover to some wavering senators,” Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said on CNN. “It has to be the kind of job that we expect the F.B.I. to do. And I believe that they can do it. They better put the resources there to be able to do a fair and complete investigation in a one-week period.”

At the end of the day, Democrats say, Republicans will still have to take a difficult vote. They believe that many Americans have grave doubts about Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior and that the F.B.I. inquiry is unlikely to exonerate him in the minds of those who see the entire process as flawed and Judge Kavanaugh as an unfit nominee.

Mr. Flake said he was driven to act as much by the damage the confirmation fight was doing to the Senate, the court and a divided nation as by the fate of the nomination itself. He may have ultimately eased the way to confirmation for Judge Kavanaugh. But the intense division over the nomination is likely to persist no matter what the F.B.I. finds.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: How a Senator May Have Saved The Republicans. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe