Washington (AFP) - Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the US Supreme Court appeared all but assured Friday after two key lawmakers signaled their support, in a major boost for President Donald Trump.
Senate Republican Susan Collins affirmed in a closely-watched floor speech that she will vote for the conservative jurist nominated by Trump, and moments later Democrat Joe Manchin broke ranks to announce his own backing.
Their declarations brought the number of senators publicly supporting the 53-year-old judge -- who has faced accusations of sexual assault -- to 51 in the 100-member chamber.
A final confirmation vote is expected Saturday afternoon.
Kavanaugh's nomination was left teetering on the edge after university psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford testified last week that he tried to rape her when they were high school students.
Her harrowing testimony sparked a delay of the vote and a supplemental FBI investigation on the allegations.
But her lawyers say the investigation was insufficient.
"An FBI investigation that did not include interviews of Dr Ford and Judge Kavanaugh is not a meaningful investigation in any sense of the word," they said in a statement quoted in US media.
Collins, a moderate, pro-choice lawmaker from Maine, said Kavanaugh was entitled to the "presumption of innocence" as the allegations against him lacked corroborating evidence.
While acknowledging that Blasey Ford's testimony was sincere, painful and compelling, and that the accuser is a sexual assault survivor, Collins added: "I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court."
Immediately after that speech, Manchin announced his support, calling Kavanaugh a "qualified jurist" who "will not allow the partisan nature this process took to follow him onto the court."
Manchin faces extraordinary political pressure. He is up for re-election in West Virginia, a state Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.
Earlier, the Senate voted 51-49 to end debate on Kavanaugh's nomination, setting up a final showdown on Saturday.
The outcome had remained in doubt, however, after one Republican, Lisa Murkowski, defied her party and voted against moving ahead.
Trump nevertheless cheered the result of the cloture vote.
"Very proud of the US Senate for voting 'YES' to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh!" the president tweeted.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders thanked Collins for "standing by your convictions and doing the right thing," while former president George HW Bush saluted her "political courage and class."
- 'Dark money' -
If he wins confirmation, Kavanaugh -- who has faced a bruising process that raised questions over his candor and partisan rhetoric, and his lifestyle as a young man -- will seal a conservative majority on the nine-seat high court for years to come.
Trump took the brutal battle to a new stage earlier Friday when he dismissed female anti-Kavanaugh protesters who have cited their own experiences of sexual assault as "elevator screamers."
The president claimed billionaire financier George Soros, a frequent target of conservatives, was behind their demonstrations.
"The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don't fall for it!" he tweeted.
Collins appeared to fall in line with Trump's accusation that outside funding was being pumped into the process, as she slammed the "unprecedented amount of dark money opposing this nomination."
The confirmation process has gripped Washington and the nation, aggravating already deep political divisions with just weeks to go before mid-term congressional elections.
Among those closely watched is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic who is not running for re-election and has expressed concern about Kavanaugh.
He voted to advance the nominee, then told reporters that barring any dramatic changes, he will vote yes on Kavanaugh's confirmation.
- 'Vote no' -
Murkowski described her decision to oppose Kavanaugh as "agonizing," and said that while she hopes he will be a "neutral arbiter" on the court, she "could not conclude that he is the right person for the court at this time."
Protesters have spent days in Washington urging swing senators like Collins and Murkowski to vote no. On Thursday, 302 people were arrested and charged with unlawfully demonstrating inside the Senate complex.
Dozens of people crowded into Collins's office pleading with her staff to tell the senator to oppose Kavanaugh, to no avail.
Trump's reference to Soros, who has supported pro-democracy movements around the world and the US Democratic Party for years, appeared to aim at inciting more support and anger from the president's conservative Christian base.
The Jewish billionaire is frequently described by arch-conservatives as a behind-the-scenes operator driving liberal and progressive movements -- criticisms that have prompted counteraccusations of anti-Semitism.
But Democrats were still arguing that there had been too little effort made to investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh.