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AP source: Kavanaugh, Ford agree to testify on Thursday

Lisa Mascaro, Mary Clare Jalonick and Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press
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FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, for the second day of his confirmation hearing to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Negotiators reached a tentative agreement Saturday for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear testimony Thursday from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault from decades ago, according to two people briefed on the matter.

Lawyers for Ford and bipartisan representatives of the committee came to the tentative agreement after a short phone call, said one of the people, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity. The person said Kavanaugh would also appear.

Some details of the hearing, such as the order of their appearance, remained in negotiation. Talks were expected to continue Sunday.

The tentative accord could bring to a close days of high-stakes brinkmanship that have roiled Washington ahead of midterm elections and threated to jeopardize Kavanaugh's confirmation to the court.

Tensions have been running on overdrive since Ford, a 51-year-old college professor in California, went public with her allegation that Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were at a house party in high school. Kavanaugh, 53, an appellate court judge, denied the allegation and said he wanted to testify as soon as possible to clear his name.

Ford initially indicated she wanted to tell her story to the committee, but talks dragged on as her lawyers negotiated terms of her appearance.

Republicans grew frustrated as Ford's lawyers insisted on a hearing next Thursday rather than Monday or even Wednesday and made other requests, some of which the committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, rejected. Democrats, against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, countered that Ford should be shown respect and given accommodation to tell her story.

As the talks continued, Grassley countered that he would end the standoff by scheduling a Monday vote on whether to recommend Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans viewed Ford's requests as a way to delay voting on President Donald Trump's nominee.

The White House views Ford's potential testimony with trepidation, nervous that an emotional performance might not just damage Kavanaugh's chances but could further energize female voters to turn out against Republicans in November.

Moreover, the West Wing aides who had urged Trump to remain muted in his response to the accusations worried about how the president might react if she ended up partaking in an hourslong, televised hearing. In a single tweet Friday, Trump broke his silence to cast doubt on Ford's story in ways Republicans had been carefully trying to avoid.

Trump mused to confidants that the "fake" attacks against his nominee were meant to undermine his presidency, according to a White House official and a Republican close to the White House. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.

Other Republicans had scoffed at Ford's willingness to tell her story. "When?" tweeted the No. 2 GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the committee.

Ford attorneys Debra Katz and Lisa Banks had said that many aspects of Grassley's latest offer were "fundamentally inconsistent" with the committee's promise of a "fair, impartial investigation." They said they remained disappointed by the "bullying" that "tainted the process."

Patience among Republicans was running thin. The GOP has faced enormous pressure from its base of conservative leaders and voters to swiftly approve Kavanaugh, who would become the second of Trump's nominees to sit on the nation's highest court.

Grassley had set a Friday night deadline for Ford to agree to the committee's latest terms for her appearance. Grassley said that if she missed that deadline, he would scrap the hearing and his committee would vote on sending Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate.

Ford's lawyers asked for another day. In a tweet aimed at Kavanaugh shortly before midnight, Grassley said he was giving them additional time.

"She shld decide so we can move on. I want to hear her. I hope u understand. It's not my normal approach to b indecisive," Grassley wrote.

In backing away from deadlines and demands, Grassley underscored the sensitivity with which Senate Republicans have tried handling Ford.

Katz had called Grassley's original deadline "arbitrary" and said its "sole purpose is to bully Dr. Ford and deprive her of the ability to make a considered decision that has life-altering implications for her and her family."

On Friday, Grassley had rejected concessions Ford wanted if she is tell her story publicly before the committee.

Grassley turned down Ford's request that only senators, not attorneys, be allowed to ask questions. The committee's 11 Republicans — all men — have been seeking an outside female attorney to interrogate Ford, mindful of the election-season impression that could be left by men trying to pick apart a woman's assertion of a sexual attack.

He also rejected her proposal that she testify after Kavanaugh, a position lawyers consider advantageous because it gives them a chance to rebut accusations.

Grassley's stance reflected a desire by Trump and GOP leaders to usher Kavanaugh onto the high court by the Oct. 1 start of its new session and before the November elections. Democrats are mounting a robust drive to grab congressional control.

Ford has said an inebriated Kavanaugh pinned her on a bed, muffled her cries and tried removing her clothes. Trump ended a week of constraint and sarcastically assailed Ford on Friday, tweeting that if the episode was "as bad as she says," she or "her loving parents" surely would have reported it to law enforcement.

Trump's searing reproach defied the Senate Republican strategy, and the advice of White House aides, of not disparaging Ford while firmly defending his nominee and the tight timetable for confirming him.

The president's tweet brought blistering rejoinders from Democrats and a mix of silence and sighs of regret from his own party. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who hasn't declared support for Kavanaugh, called the remark "appalling."

Grassley has rebuffed other Ford requests, including calling additional witnesses. Ford wants an appearance by Mark Judge, a Kavanaugh friend who Ford asserts was at the high school party and in the room where the incident occurred.

Grassley consented to other Ford demands, including that she be provided security and that Kavanaugh not be in the hearing room when she testifies. Her request for security comes after her lawyers said she has relocated her family due to death threats.

Meanwhile, the lawyer for a woman who Ford has said attended the 1980s party at which Kavanaugh allegedly molested her has told Senate Republicans that the woman doesn't remember being at any party Kavanaugh attended.

Attorney Howard Walsh emailed Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans late Saturday that Leland Keyser "does not know Mr. Kavanaugh and she has no recollection" of ever attending a gathering with Kavanaugh, "with or without Dr. Ford."

That denial seemed to be a setback for Ford supporters' efforts to corroborate her story.

In a statement, Ford attorney Debra Katz wrote that Ford did not discuss the alleged assault with Keyser. She also called it "unremarkable" that Keyser didn't recall a party "30 years ago at which nothing of consequence happened to her."

The Washington Post reported Saturday that Ford told them Keyser was at that high school party.

On Tuesday, a GOP investigator for the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote Keyser that she had been "identified" as attending that party and wanted to talk to her.

Committee spokesman Taylor Ford said Saturday night that the panel learned Keyser's name "through its investigation" into Ford's claim, but did not specify how.

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Lemire reported from Bridgewater, New Jersey.