GOP senators defend Kavanaugh as exasperation mounts: 'We're in the Twilight Zone,' Graham says

Shortly after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a forceful defense of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on the Senate floor, top Judiciary Committee Republicans on Monday sounded notes of both exasperation and defiance in the face of what they have characterized as last-minute "smears."

"We’re in the Twilight Zone when it comes to Kavanaugh," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News on Capitol Hill. Later Monday evening, in an interview with Fox News' "Hannity," Graham said the allegations against Kavanaugh are "collapsing."

Graham charged that Democrats' complaints about "rushing" the Kavanaugh confirmation vote are "like an arsonist complaining about a fire," noting that Senate Democrats knew about California professor Christine Ford's allegations about Kavanaugh in July but did not publicize them until days before a crucial Judiciary Committee vote earlier this month.

"Let’s bring it to a conclusion," added Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I think we ought to get it over with."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Fox News, "I think they are going to 'plow through'" -- referring to McConnell's comment to religious conservatives at the Value Voters Summit Friday that "we're going to plow right through it and do our job."

"We’re in the Twilight Zone when it comes to Kavanaugh."

— Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The Republicans huddled in McConnell's office Monday evening to discuss the "the general situation" surrounding Kavanaugh's nomination, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Fox News.

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The meeting followed McConnell's dramatic nationally televised floor speech, in which he unloaded on his Democratic colleagues, charging that they had compromised the anonymity of one of Kavanaugh's accusers for political gain.

“This shameful smear campaign has hit a new low," McConnell said, recalling that Democrats had promised to stop a generational rightward shift on the Supreme Court by "any means" available. "Senate Democrats are trying to destroy a man’s personal and professional life."

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McConnell reiterated that none of the allegations against Kavanaugh -- including the claims published Sunday in The New Yorker and last week by The Washington Post -- had any first-hand corroboration, and vowed an up-or-down vote on the nominee after a planned hearing Thursday.

Ford, the California professor who said that Kavanaugh attacked her more than three decades ago, is set to testify along with Kavanaugh at that hearing, after days of back-and-forth negotiations between Ford's legal team and Senate Republicans. None of the witnesses Ford has named as present at the house party where Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her have backed up her claim.

And the accuser in The New Yorker piece published Sunday, by her own admission, said she was not sure Kavanaugh assaulted her more than three decades ago until she spent days talking to a lawyer this week.

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Despite calls to delay the hearing pending an FBI investigation from top Democrats, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Thursday hearing still appears likely to occur. Ford told Grassley in a letter Monday that "while I am frightened, please know, my fear will not hold me back from testifying."

The hearing is scheduled to unfold in the smaller hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, instead of the larger, TV-friendly facility in the Hart Building -- an apparent concession to Ford, who wrote to Grassley that she hoped the hearing would not "become a media TV show."

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Some procedural details about the hearing remained uncertain Monday evening, including whether outside lawyers -- rather than just senators -- would be able to pose questions to Kavanaugh and Ford. Republicans have sought to avoid the optics of having their all-male contingent on the Judiciary Committee question a woman accusing their party's nominee of sexual assault, while Ford's lawyers explicitly requested that only senators ask questions.

In a letter late Monday, Ford's lawyers reportedly asked Grassley for the name of a sex crimes prosecutor who might ask questions at the hearing. They also criticized McConnell's speech, saying it betrayed an unwillingness to seek the truth.

Fox News anticipates that both Grassley and Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Commitee who received Ford's allegations back in July but only revealed them earlier this month, will deliver an opening statement at the hearing.

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Then there would likely be prospective five-minute rounds of questions by each senator, with a "halftime" between Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s testimony. Ford has requested that Kavanaugh not be in the room during her testimony. She also has requested that she be able to testify after Kavanaugh, which would prevent him from responding immediately to her allegations -- a request Republicans rejected as unfair.

In an exclusive interview with Fox News on Monday, Kavanaugh appeared with his wife, Ashley, and strenuously denied the allegations against him, and said that he seeks a "fair" hearing on Thursday.

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"What I know is the truth, and the truth is I've never sexually assaulted anyone," Kavanaugh told Fox News' Martha MacCallum. "I want a fair process where I can defend my integrity, and I know I'm telling the truth. I know my lifelong record, and I'm not going to let false accusations drive me out of this process. I have faith in God and I have faith in the fairness of the American people."

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee do not expect, however, to be able to vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation until Friday at the absolute earliest. That would almost certainly mean that the Supreme Court would be without a ninth justice when its next term begins Oct. 1, a date set by federal law.

However, legal experts tell Fox News, a ninth justice could be seated mid-term and rule on cases that are in progress. And the court's upcoming term is relatively free of blockbuster cases -- perhaps by design.

"The caseload for [the upcoming term] is fairly benign when it comes to hot-button issues," Adam Feldman, a Supreme Court expert who runs the blog Empirical SCOTUS, told Fox News. "This makes me think that the justices were aware of [Justice Anthony] Kennedy's likely departure when they starting granting cases for this term."

And for the handful of cases with broader significance, the justices could follow past practices and delay a ruling until a ninth justice is seated.

"The term after Justice Scalia died, the Court took forever to schedule the most controversial cases for argument—that is, they just didn’t schedule them, month after month after month, even as cases granted later were scheduled and argued," John Elwood, a prominent Washington, D.C. appellate lawyer who has argued several cases before the Supreme Court, told Fox News.

Fox News' Samuel Chamberlain and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.