President Donald Trump talks with his nominee for the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, at his nomination announcement at the White House earlier this year. File picture: Jm Bourg/Reuters
Washington - The Senate advanced Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination in a key procedural vote Friday morning, putting him one step closer to confirmation and ending a deeply partisan and rancorous fight.

The chamber voted 51 to 49 to advance the nomination after Republican leaders secured the votes of two GOP senators and one Democrat who had not publicly announced their intentions before arriving to vote. A final confirmation vote could come Saturday.

The last of the undecided votes began falling into place after the senators reviewed a highly anticipated report from the FBI investigating allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.

Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, two of the Republican holdouts, voted to advance President Donald Trump's nominee, while Lisa Murkowski on Alaska was the only GOP senator to break with her party.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a red-state Democrat up for re-election next month, was the only Democrat to support Kavanaugh.

The vote Friday significantly bolsters Kavanaugh's prospects, but some votes could change. Collins, considered a swing vote, said that she would vote to advance the nomination but wait until later Friday to say how will vote on confirmation.

"I will be voting yes on proceeding to the final confirmation vote, and I will announce my intentions on how to vote later today," Collins told reporters.

Some Democrats held out hope that two senators would switch sides and sink Kavanaugh's nomination.

"You could interpret it that 51 people wanted the process to go ahead, but when the actual vote comes one or two might not vote (in favour)," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "We're speculating - I have no way of knowing."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said many Democrats were continuing to talk with Manchin in hopes that he will ultimately vote no on Kavanaugh.

"I think he wanted to move it along to a final vote," Booker said. "I understand his logic, and we'll see what happens on his final vote."

Manchin indicated he would put out a statement on his reasoning later Friday.

Kavanaugh's nomination, announced in July, collided with the #MeToo movement and midterm election politics and could alter the balance of power on the Supreme Court for a generation.

Friday's vote came as Trump mocked one of Kavanaugh's accusers this week at a political rally and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee issued a statement purportedly describing the sex life of another accuser, attacks that advocates for victims decried.

Confirmation of Kavanaugh would be a crowning achievement for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who blocked a Democratic nominee to the court for more than a year and has muscled dozens of appeals and district court nominees through the Senate. Kavanaugh would replace the retired justice Anthony Kennedy.

Shortly after Friday's vote, Trump reacted on Twitter.

"Very proud of the U.S. Senate for voting 'YES' to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!" he wrote.

Before the vote, leaders of the chamber traded sharply divergent characterizations of whether Kavanaugh belongs on the court.

Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called Kavanaugh's nomination "one of he saddest, most sordid chapters in the long history of the federal judiciary."

McConnell, meanwhile, praised the qualifications of the president's nominee and said he had been the victim of an "unbelievable mudslide" of unsubstantiated allegations.

The jockeying for final votes played out after the senators reviewed the FBI report. Republicans argued that it exonerated Kavanaugh of any wrongdoing, giving senators more confidence in voting to confirm him. But Democrats disputed the Republicans' assertions, especially because, they argued, the scope of the investigation was too limited.

The 46-page FBI report cannot be released publicly, and senators are barred from talking about it in detail. All day Thursday and Friday morning, senators shuffled in and out of a secure facility at the Capitol to read through the report, which included copies of interviews with key witnesses and stacks of material gleaned from an FBI tip line.

The FBI investigated the allegation brought by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor in California who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a suburban Maryland home when they were teenagers.

Agents also looked into the accusation brought by Deborah Ramirez that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they were students at Yale University. Kavanaugh adamantly denies both accusations.

The allegations of a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, were not a focus of the investigation. Swetnick, who is represented by celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti, alleges that Kavanaugh was physically abusive toward girls in high school and was at a house party in 1982 where she says she was the victim of a gang rape.

The FBI reached out to 10 witnesses, although nine were ultimately interviewed, according to senators and the White House. But lawyers for both Ford and Ramirez have said they offered the FBI numerous other witnesses who could potentially corroborate the women's claims.

After Friday's procedural vote, Senate Republicans hope to take a final vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation on Saturday.

Potentially complicating matters for Republicans is that Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., announced Thursday he plans to be at his daughter's wedding back home on Saturday. But Daines' vote will not be needed unless one Republican defects and Democrats stay unified against Kavanaugh. In that case, a Saturday evening session could be held open for hours into Sunday so Daines, who supports Kavanaugh, could return to Washington.

Daines told reporters Friday that he would fly back late Saturday if he is needed for the vote.

"This is all going to work out," he predicted. "We're going to have a new Supreme Court justice this weekend, and I'm going to get to walk my daughter down the aisle."

Kavanaugh, 53, 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 Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump nominated for the Supreme Court last year.

The American Bar Association, which had issued a unanimous "well qualified" rating for Kavanaugh, said in a letter sent Friday that it would reopen its evaluation because of "new information of a material nature regarding temperament" that emerged from an emotional and combative hearing last week the featured testimony from Ford and Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh addressed his comportmant at the hearing in an extraordinary op-ed in the Wall Street Journal published Thursday night, acknowledging that he was "very emotional" during his testimony and "I said a few things I should not have said."

"Going forward, you can count on me to be the same kind of judge and person I have been for my entire 28-year legal career: hard-working, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good," Kavanaugh wrote.

The Washington Post