Kamala Harris Leads a Democratic Revolt as Kavanaugh Hearings Begin

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Sen. Kamala Harris delivers her opening statement as Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 4, 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It took about a minute for the spirit of bipartisanship that permeated Sen. John McCain's funeral Saturday to evaporate into political bitterness as the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh got underway in Washington Tuesday morning.

Under seniority rules of the U.S. Senate, California Sen. Kamala Harris was expected to speak near the end of Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Instead, she was the first Democrat to pierce the air of cordiality by interrupting committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) as he began the hearing.

“Mr Chairman, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman,” Harris said, at times speaking over Grassley. “I'd like to be recognized for a question before we proceed. Mr. Chairman, I'd like to be recognized to ask a question before we proceed."

Harris and fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) wanted a vote to postpone the hearing.

Harris was giving voice to the anger and frustration many Democrats feel over the lack of transparency and access to documents related to Kavanaugh's career, especially his time as a legal adviser to President George W. Bush.


Throughout the morning, protesters in the hearing room yelled one after another, expressing concern over how Kavanaugh's confirmation would affect Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Capitol police escorted protesters out the door, some shouting as they left.

A protester shouts during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court September 4, 2018.
A protester shouts during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court September 4, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Some protests were organized by the San Francisco-based activist group Code Pink. 

"The idea was to do it popcorn style," said Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin. "Different people getting up and speaking out," she told KQED. "Today was part of pushing the Democrats to take a stand."

Benjamin praised both Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But she expressed disappointment that Feinstein seemed eager to move on from the initial protest.

"It was unfortunate when we were still challenging Republicans that she turned her remarks into her opening statement and moved on," Benjamin said. "I would have liked to see her keep the challenge going."

Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León, Feinstein's opponent in her November re-election campaign, agreed.

"I would sooner walk out into the streets and protest with people we represent than remain in that Senate chamber, where diplomatic bluster is worth less than the paper the members’ talking points are printed on," de León said in a statement.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

But Republicans on the committee expressed outrage, even disgust at the protesters, with Texas Sen. John Cornyn calling it "mob rule."

Senate Democrats, of course, saw it differently.

“What we've heard is the noise of democracy,” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “This is what happens in a free country when people can stand up and speak and not be jailed, imprisoned, tortured or killed because of it.”

In her opening statement, Feinstein also pressed the case for releasing more Kavanaugh documents and expressed concern over how women would be affected by further restrictions on their access to abortion services. She also said she plans to press Kavanaugh on his views about gun control.

The first day of hearings exemplified the differences between Feinstein and Harris. While both are San Francisco Democrats, Feinstein is clearly more comfortable within the confines of decorum.

"Thank God somebody is!," said Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Feinstein is who she is. I think it would have been a huge story if she behaved without decorum and dignity."

Harris is clearly more in tune with the raucous progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which wants their elected officials to aggressively push a more liberal agenda. That's no surprise, given her apparent interest in running for president in 2020.

By that measure, her performance Tuesday only adds to Harris' status as a rising star.