WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump opted out of this week’s presidential debate, calling the virtual format a “waste of time,” but the Senate’s fervid work to confirm his Supreme Court pick, Judge Amy Coney Barret, pushed forward Monday in a partially virtual hearing.
Democrats fiercely objected to the historic hearing kicking off amid an increasing number of Republicans in Washington testing positive for Covid-19, including President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republican efforts to blot out the federal health care law — and Barrett’s avowed support of that effort — is expected to be a major focus for Democrats challenging the judge’s nomination.
The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act just one week after Election Day. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the soon-to-be justice to recuse herself from the heavyweight case that could overturn the landmark health care law amid a nationwide health care crisis, saying her “record and previous public statements clearly indicate that she would vote to strike down the ACA and overturn Roe.”
The death last month of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg puts Republicans in sight of a 6-3 Supreme Court majority, though Democrats say Barrett’s rushed nomination to a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land usurps the will of voters, millions of whom are already heading to the polls in several states with early voting.
Never in U.S. history has the Senate confirmed a Supreme Court nominee so close to a presidential election.
Among other complaints about Barrett’s record, Democrats have railed against her views on the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade and LGBT rights.
After Trump elevated Barrett, 48, to her current seat on the Seventh Circuit in 2017, she earned a reputation among Republicans as a brilliant originalist who does not legislate from the bench.
“Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life,” Barret plans to tell senators late Monday after senators give opening statements.
The nominee will commit to serve as a justice “fearless of criticism,” according to her prepared statement first obtained by the Associated Press on Sunday.
But Democrats worry the longtime law professor at Notre Dame is unqualified and will inappropriately advance Trump’s agenda. A devout Catholic and mother of seven, Barrett failed to mention on a Senate questionnaire that she signed a 2006 open letter that called for an end “to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade.”
With her dual-role as a mother and jurist praised by supporters, Barrett said in prepared remarks that she brings “a few new perspectives” as a justice who would be the “first mother of school-aged children to serve on the court.”
Trump is believed to have contracted Covid-19 at the White House Rose Garden event where he announced his nomination of Barrett, a gathering now considered a coronavirus super-spreader.
More than two dozen people who attended the event on Sept. 26 tested positive for Covid-19, including a slew of White House officials and three Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Lee and Tillis both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the infection spread, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the Senate’s return to Washington by two weeks.
Two more GOP senators who were at the Rose Garden ceremony for Barrett, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Wisconsin, tested negative for Covid-19 last week.
Trump administration officials have stated Barrett and her husband, Jesse Barrett, who attended the Rose Garden event mask-less, both recovered earlier this year after coming down with the virus.
For several Democrats, the presence of these Republicans after exposure to the deadly respiratory virus endangers the health of their fellow members, Senate staffers and the members of the media present.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said last week that McConnell’s decision to recess made clear it was reckless to proceed with business as usual.
“If it’s too dangerous to have the Senate in session, it is also too dangerous for committee hearings to continue,” Schumer said.
A staunch supporter of the president, Chairman Lindsey Graham gave senators the option to make their own determination on whether to appear for the confirmation hearing in person or remotely. Graham said in a Fox News interview Sunday that he tested negative for the coronavirus last week, adding “anybody that has a concern about showing up can virtually interview Judge Barrett.”
California Senator Kamala Harris plans to question Barrett remotely from her Senate office as a coronavirus precaution, her spokesman said Sunday.
Now the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Harris in 2018 took center stage at the nomination hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, firing off prosecutorial-style questions at the controversial Trump nominee.
Throughout the pandemic, at the objection of Democrats, the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee has conducted more than 20 hearings with Trump’s nominees for the federal bench, many who participated by videoconference.
Though the president has predicted that Barret’s confirmation will be “straightforward,” strict coronavirus safety measures made Monday’s hearing a far cry from the elbow-to-elbow events typical for Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The grand Senate room where Barrett will face a marathon of question-and answer-periods this week is the same hearing room where Ginsburg and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor sat for their nomination hearings. The building has been closed to the public for months due to the pandemic.
Senators were accompanied Monday by just one staffer, keeping six feet apart in the room now outfitted with a second dais. Republicans emphasized in the lead-up to the proceeding that the hearing was in accordance with the Office of Attending Physician and Senate Rules, arguing Democrats’ calls for delay are “inconsistent with protocols” and not based on science.
The politically charged hearing is set to last four days, with an expected vote to follow on Oct. 22. Monday is reserved for opening statements, followed by questioning of Barrett on Tuesday and Wednesday. The country will likely hear from Barrett’s former colleagues and possibly family come Thursday.
Barrett’s prepared remarks note that she would be the only sitting justice who did not attend Harvard or Yale. Barrett earned her bachelor’s degree from Rhodes College before graduating from Notre Dame Law School in 1997.
Critics of her nomination were quick to point out that the nominee has never argued before the Supreme Court, and only litigated for two years before transitioning to a series of professorships, including at her alma mater before joining the Seventh Circuit.
Senate rules set quorum requirements that Republicans must meet to propel Barret out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a final confirmation vote.
Should more senators test positive for Covid-19 and fail to be physically present on Capitol Hill, Graham may have difficulty advancing Barrett before Americans’ votes are counted.
Republicans are jamming Barrett through the grueling nomination process in hopes of landing her on the high court before the Nov. 3 election, fearing her seat on the nine-member bench would be in jeopardy if they lose control of the Senate.
The conservative judge’s ascension to the Supreme Court by next month also ensures she will be sitting for the Affordable Care Act argument on Nov. 10 as well as any election-related legal challenges that may go before the justices.
A liberal icon, Ginsburg before her death on Sept. 18 reportedly told her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”