Lawmakers fired the opening shots Tuesday in a bitter political battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative judge tapped by President Donald Trump to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kavanaugh would help cement a rightward tilt on America's top court, potentially shaping many aspects of US society for decades to come, including women's access to abortions.
Trump on Monday nominated Kavanaugh, 53, as his pick to succeed retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, saying the federal judge has "impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications, and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law."
The job-for-life appointment would lock down a conservative majority on the court following the departure of Kennedy, who acted as swing vote on a number of major issues including the legalization of gay marriage across America.
Opposition figures wasted no time in assailing Kavanaugh, warning his confirmation would usher in the erosion of civil liberties and long-held rights, while conservatives were quick to drum up support for the nominee.
In selecting Kavanaugh, Trump "has put women's reproductive rights and vital health care protections... at grave, grave risk," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
"Now is the time for the American people to make their voices heard, loudly, clearly, from one end of this country to the other."
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with opposition Democrats, said Kavanaugh would serve as a "rubber-stamp for an extreme, right-wing agenda pushed by corporations and billionaires."
But the Senate's top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, hailed a "superb choice" in Kavanaugh and urged senators to "put partisanship aside."
The conservative action group Judicial Crisis Network immediately launched a website called ConfirmKavanaugh.com featuring an advertisement for the nominee who "applies the Constitution just as it was written."
- Little wiggle room -
Calls to put party politics aside are likely to go unheard in Washington.
The appointment of Supreme Court justices was once a fairly civil and bipartisan affair: when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated in 1993, Senators voted 96-3 to confirm her.
Not any more.
Kavanaugh's nomination sets the stage for a brutal confirmation battle, a blueprint for which Republicans established in 2016 when they denied a hearing to Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's choice to fill the seat left vacant following the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia.
When Trump finally tapped Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy, McConnell resorted to changing procedural rules so he could be approved by a simple majority instead of the traditional 60-40 threshold.
But Republicans hold the narrowest of majorities in the Senate: 51 Republicans, against 49 Democrats and Independents. With ailing Republican John McCain unable to vote, they have little wiggle room.
During the Gorsuch vote, three Democrats from conservative states ended up siding with Republicans, and a question now is whether they will support Kavanaugh.
The newly-nominated justice on Tuesday went to the US Capitol to begin meeting with senators ahead of any confirmation hearings to explain his positions.
"If confirmed by the Senate, I will keep an open mind in every case, and I will always strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States and the American Rule of Law," he said earlier.
McConnell told reporters that Kavanaugh's confirmation should be complete by the time the Supreme Court's new session begins in October.
- Bush era -
Kavanaugh worked for president George W. Bush, who appointed him in 2003 to the US Court of Appeals in Washington -- where he was finally confirmed in 2006 after years of Democratic obstruction.
Kavanaugh grew up in Washington as the son of a schoolteacher. He has the reputation of a staunch conservative, one who many Republicans hope could help overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision guaranteeing women the right to an abortion.
He has ruled on hundreds of cases, and contributed to prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report into president Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which outlined grounds for Clinton's impeachment.
Later he was part of Bush's legal team working on the 2000 Florida recount, which resulted in Bush's winning the presidency.
While Democrats tried to paint Kavanaugh as an extremist, Republicans said he was the type of moderate Bush might have appointed.
Kavanaugh is also a robust supporter of the executive power of the presidency -- so much so that Democrats warn that Trump wants Kavanaugh on the bench as a check against possible legal action against him, including potential subpoenas related to special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe.
Mueller is looking into any links between Russia and Trump's 2016 electoral campaign, as well as possible obstruction of justice.
Trump "chose the candidate who he thought would best protect him from the Mueller investigation," Schumer said, adding that Kavanaugh has written that a president should not be investigated and could choose not to follow the law if he deemed it unconstitutional.
Kavanaugh's job-for-life appointment would effectively lock down a conservative majority on the US Supreme Court
Judge Brett Kavanaugh poses for photographs before meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
US Supreme Court