The Senate Judiciary Committee begins confirmation hearings on Monday for Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
The hearings are moving ahead under exceedingly unusual circumstances with an election looming and an outbreak of the coronavirus still roiling Washington. Republicans are aiming to stick to a tight and closely choreographed timeline that would allow Barrett to join the court before Election Day on November 3.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been adamant that the Judiciary Committee hearings should proceed despite 3 Republicans, including two members of the committee, testing positive for the virus. The Judiciary members were among those that attended an event in the White House Rose Garden to announce Barrett’s nomination. That event has been at the nexus of the ongoing spread of the coronavirus in GOP political circles.
McConnell has said the committee is capable of holding hearings that are part virtual and part in-person and that the development will not prevent Barrett’s confirmation. The GOP leader did postpone floor votes for two weeks after the news of the outbreak.
“We will be voting on the nominee, you know, very soon,” McConnell said in a recent appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “I haven’t picked an exact point to bring the nomination up, but it’s front and center for the American people.”
Confirmation in a pandemic
The committee plans to allow members to appear either in person or virtually and has drastically reduced the number of people allowed in the hearing room. Barrett’s family will be seated as a pod, press access will be pared down and hygiene stations with masks, gloves and sanitizer will be accessible throughout the room, according to committee aides.
Those protections have not been enough to assuage protests from Democrats who say the hearings should be halted. They are calling for committee-wide testing and in-person hearings for a nominee who is chosen by whoever wins the election in November.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has accused Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., of barreling ahead with the confirmation even as committee members Sens. Mike Lee R-Utah and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“Moving forward with the committee process when three Senators have recently tested positive for Covid-19 is irresponsible and dangerous, but doing so without requiring all members to be tested before a hearing in accordance with CDC best practices would be intentionally reckless,” Schumer said in a statement. “If Chairman Graham doesn’t require testing, it may make some wonder if he just doesn’t want to know the results.”
Republicans have rejected those calls and are moving ahead with the ambitious schedule that leaves little room for error.
Election politics in the hearing room
Republican leaders have known since shortly after Barrett was nominated that they have the votes to confirm her.
The lack of drama over the potential outcome of a final vote on the Senate floor opens opportunities for both parties to use the hearings as part of a final pitch to voters who are deciding the outcome of both the presidential election and Senate races that could shift the balance of power in Washington for several years.
For Republicans, the four days of hearings will be an opportunity to highlight Barrett’s legal career, conservative judicial philosophy and close connection with former Justice Antonin Scalia. They also plan to draw out political attacks from Democrats, according to several aides familiar with the committee.
Outside groups have rushed to help both parties build not only a case for Barrett but a political argument to the public. Groups like the Article III Project, which was created to defend Trump’s judicial nominees, have been holding press calls, writing opinion pieces and appearing on TV to advocate for Barrett.
“Wrapped within the whole political moment of a presidential election and a Supreme Court confirmation is the very question of what do we want our structure of government to look like?” said Ian Prior, a senior counselor for the group. “The Senate is really the place where there’s going to be the most to gain or to lose based on how how those hearings go, how people conduct themselves in those hearings, especially when you’re talking about in the middle of a presidential election.”
Four Republicans on the committee are running for re-election, many in races that have tightened in recent weeks. Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa and Thom Tillis R-N.C. are all on the ballot in their home states. Democrats hope to use the nationally televised hearings to their advantage, according to several Democratic aides.
Democrats have few options for slowing the nomination or preventing a vote on the Senate floor. However the hearings create a national stage for members of the Judiciary Committee to make a final pitch to voters.
For Democrats that means talking first and foremost about health care. They say Barrett could be the key vote to GOP attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in a case that is scheduled to be argued before the court on November 10, one week after the election.
Democrats say Barrett was chosen specifically on the belief that she would dismantle the health care law. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters on a call last week that he’s already raised those concerns with Barrett and plans to do so again during the hearing.
“I just wanted her to hear directly from me that what I’m most concerned about is that in the middle of a pandemic, President Trump, and 18 Republican state attorneys general, are trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections,” Coons said. “The ACA is not just on the docket of the Supreme Court, it’s on the ballot in the fall.”
Faith and judicial decisions
Democrats also plan to focus on Barrett’s stance on abortion. That has become a tricky subject as Republicans accuse Democrats of attacking Barrett for her conservative Catholic faith, not her judicial philosophy.
Republicans, from McConnell to committee members, have spent the past several weeks accusing Democrats of religious bigotry in how they discuss Catholicism and Barrett’s faith. They point to questions Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Barrett during her confirmation hearings in 2017 when she was before the committee for her current post on the Seventh Circuit. At the time Feinstein said “the dogma lives loudly within” Barrett.
Democrats have vowed to avoid discussions of faith with Barrett in recent weeks but Republicans have focused intently on the issue. Committee members like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have been on cable news and Twitter denouncing Democrats for a “smear campaign” against Barrett.
But Democrats call the religion discussion an attempt at a political trap that they have vowed to avoid.
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