COVID outbreak threatens GOP’s Supreme Court plans

Greg Nash

An outbreak of the coronavirus on Capitol Hill is injecting a new level of volatility into the GOP plan to confirm President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee ‪before Nov. 3.

Republicans want to put Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the bench just days before the elections, an ambitious timeline that left the party no room for error.

Instead, Republicans are getting an unexpected curveball with the virus peeling away at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) majority as six GOP senators are out this week. Democrats are accusing the GOP leader of putting his judicial ambitions above public safety in the middle of a public health crisis.

So far, McConnell is vowing to move forward undeterred, rejecting calls by Democrats to delay the timeline for Barrett, who is expected to testify in person before the Senate Judiciary Committee starting on Oct. 12.

“We are full-steam ahead with a fair, thorough and timely confirmation process,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday.

Backing up McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has formally scheduled the hearing, the latest indication that his plans are unchanged by the virus.

Democrats on Monday called on Graham to delay the hearing and absent that require testing for any staff and lawmakers taking part in it.

“The Republican leadership has truly lost touch with reality if it’s contemplating marching COVID-stricken members to the Senate to rush through a Supreme Court nominee. … Chairman Graham should halt this already illegitimate nomination process, and if he refuses, he must put into place a thorough testing procedure that is in accordance with CDC best practices before hearings can take place,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

Republicans dismissed the demand as a stall tactic. But underscoring the fragility of the situation, McConnell has adjourned the Senate until Oct. 19, a move that would minimize the potential that additional Republican senators are exposed, or expose each other, around the Capitol.

It marks the first time that the Senate has left town because of the coronavirus since this spring, when McConnell extended the April recess until early May. And it’s a U-turn from as recently as Friday, when the GOP leader shot down the idea of changing the Senate’s schedule in the wake of President Trump and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) testing positive.

Since then, the severity of the situation has escalated, throwing new doubt on the GOP’s timeline for confirming Barrett.

In addition to Lee, Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have both tested positive for the coronavirus. Three more Republican senators — James Lankford (Okla.), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) — have each tested negative but are self-isolating due to exposure from their colleagues.

Democrats believe they have new leverage, depending on how many GOP senators are able to return to Washington. McConnell is currently capped at 47 senators, but if all senators are voting, Democrats will need the help of four Republicans to keep Barrett from ultimately being confirmed.

“We will have many more procedural options when it comes to a vote in the Senate committee and a vote on the floor and we will use every tool in the toolbox,” Schumer said during a press conference in New York on Sunday.

A Democratic aide confirmed they will make Republicans show they have the required majority present on Oct. 22 to report Barrett’s nomination to the floor. And under committee rules, at least two members of the minority party also need to be present for the committee to vote on Barrett’s nomination. Though Lee and Tillis could vote via proxy, those votes do not count if it changes the outcome and there isn’t a tie-breaker in Senate committees, putting an emphasis on them returning in person.

On the floor, Democrats are under pressure to make Republicans show they have the 51 members in town to constitute a quorum needed for the chamber to conduct business. Similar to previous Supreme Court fights, they’re also likely to force procedural votes in an effort to slow down the nomination.

McConnell acknowledged that the GOP’s slim majority, and the expectation that at least one GOP senator will vote against Barrett, will mean he needs all of his members healthy and in Washington, D.C., later this month when he will need to defeat likely Democratic delaying tactics and bring her nomination to a final vote on the floor.

“Our biggest enemy obviously is … the coronavirus, keeping everybody healthy and well and in place to do our job,” McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt late last week about the effort to confirm Barrett before the election.

McConnell has floated that the Supreme Court hearing could be held virtually, something Democrats have blasted.

Based on timelines from their office, both Lee and Tillis expect to be back in the Senate by Oct. 22, and Cruz and Sasse say they will return for the start of Barrett’s hearing. Republicans are vowing that, as long as they have 51 votes, they will confirm Barrett to the court.

Underscoring the lengths Republicans are prepared to go to stick to their timeline, outside activists have floated having sick senators vote from the galleries overlooking the chambers, and at least two senators have signaled that COVID-19-positive lawmakers could return to help overcome Democratic tactics and confirm Barrett.

“I think every senator who’s currently tested positive or is in isolation will be back to work under normal conditions … but, if that’s not the case, there is a long and venerable tradition of ill or medically infirm senators being wheeled in to cast critical votes. … So I’m confident that every senator will be in attendance when his or her vote is needed,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Fox Business about a vote on Barrett’s nomination before the full Senate.

Johnson, one of the three senators currently infected with the virus, told a Colorado radio station that he was prepared to return to the Senate in a “moon suit” if that’s what it took to help confirm Barrett.

“We think this is pretty important,” he said. “I think people can be fairly confident that Mitch McConnell is dedicated to holding this vote.” 

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination Ben Sasse Charles Schumer Donald Trump James Lankford Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Senate coronavirus cases Supreme Court Ted Cruz Thom Tillis Tom Cotton Trump judicial nominees
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