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Dems to focus on issues, not character, at Barrett hearings

Dems to focus on issues, not character, at Barrett hearings
© Bonnie Cash

Senate Democrats are carefully mapping out their strategy for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing next week, hoping to avoid the pitfalls of the messy 2018 fight over Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCollins says running as Independent 'crossed my mind' Clean energy opportunities in a time of crisis Susan Collins and the American legacy MORE that energized the GOP base.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference Pelosi calls Iran 'bad actor' but not equivalent to Russia on election interference MORE (D-N.Y.) has urged his colleagues to focus on “health care, health care, health care” and stay away from attacks on Barrett’s character, Roman Catholic beliefs or qualifications.

The Democratic leader sees health care as a theme that can unify liberals in his party with more centrist candidates who are running against Republican incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and North Carolina — all states President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE won in 2016.

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“This is going to be a very different judicial nomination process than the last one. The last one was very heated,” said a Democratic senator on the strategy for next week’s confirmation hearing, drawing a comparison to the angry spectacle that erupted over Kavanaugh in 2018.

“I think our focus is going to be on health care,” the lawmaker said of guidance Schumer has given the Democratic caucus. “One of his communications said, ‘Three things: health care, health care, health care.’ He’s really focused on that.”

By contrast, the nominee’s character, specifically allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior in high school and college, became the central focus of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Republicans accused Democrats of trying to destroy the nominee personally for political ends and helped fuel a conservative backlash in battleground states such as Missouri and Indiana.

Schumer had conversations with Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, and members of the panel have also had discussions among themselves about how to coordinate a different strategy to oppose Barrett.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Tuesday he has “no intention” of asking Barrett about “her religious faith or any issues concerning religion.”

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“I believe that questions should be directed to the nominee’s judicial philosophy and her positions on legal issues,” he said.

Instead, Blumenthal sought to put the focus on as many as 17 different cases in federal court touching on abortion rights that Barrett could rule on if confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“This issue of reproductive freedom is going to be a central focus of the hearing and a major point of contention in the confirmation process,” he said Tuesday.

“Amy Coney Barrett has shown by her past writings and by her passing the Trump ‘strong test,’ as he would call it, that she would overrule Roe v. Wade,” he said, citing the 1973 landmark decision establishing the right to abortion nationwide.

“Equally important, she would uphold the restrictions that states have imposed — in fact, more than 450 such restrictions over the past decade — on access to abortion and reproductive rights services,” he added. “There are about 17 cases that are one step away from consideration in the Supreme Court.”

He cited a Mississippi law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks and a requirement that women wait 18 hours after a mandatory ultrasound before going through with an abortion.

He also cited mandatory waiting periods in North Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia and restrictions in Texas and Arkansas on so-called D&E procedures used for pregnancies in the second 12 weeks.

Blumenthal in a subsequent interview said another key area is Barrett’s views of precedent.

“She seems to give much less weight to well-established, long-accepted precedent when it conflicts with her positions,” he said.

Barrett in a 2003 academic article cited Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, as an “erroneous decision.”

In another article, she gave examples of Supreme Court cases that no justice would overturn even if they might disagree with the reasoning behind them but left Roe v. Wade off the list.

During her 2017 confirmation hearing for a position on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett deflected Democrats’ questions by saying she would follow Supreme Court precedent. 

She would have much more leeway to overturn that precedent as a member of the high court, Democratic senators note. 

Blumenthal said he will attend the hearing in person and will wear a mask.

Democratic pollsters say health care, abortion rights and reproductive freedom, and the precedence Barrett’s nomination is taking over coronavirus relief negotiations, are the strongest points of leverage they’ll have next week.

“The No. 1 thing is health care,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic strategist and pollster.

“Health care and choice, and that COVID [relief legislation] should have been done before the Supreme Court nomination,” she said.

A Hill-HarrisX poll of 928 registered voters from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 found that 74 percent of voters think the Senate should prioritize coronavirus relief over confirming Barrett.

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“For certain audiences, like college-educated women, it’s good to link Roe v. Wade and the [Affordable Care Act] because it covers women’s reproductive health care,” Lake said.

“You’re better off to focus on a couple things than a lot of things,” she added.

Schumer has made clear that he wants colleagues to stay away from criticizing Barrett’s strong Roman Catholic beliefs, character or qualifications, which Republicans could then use as ammo to accuse them of waging a campaign of personal destruction — a tactic that proved effective during the Kavanaugh battle.

“The strategy from the Republican majority is to invent some new distraction of fresh outrage to talk about. My colleagues on the other side would rather talk about anything besides the fact that their president, their party and their Supreme Court nominee poses a dire threat to Americans’ health care,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Schumer told ABC’s “The View” that the debate over Barrett is “not her qualifications or any personal characteristics about her” but about “the issues” like “a woman’s right to choose” and “health care for all Americans.”

The Guardian reported Tuesday that Barrett once lived in the home of Kevin Ranaghan, a founder of People of Praise, a charismatic Christian group that has received media attention for its views on opposition to same-sex marriage, speaking in tongues and prophecy.

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Barrett’s strong religious convictions became a topic of debate during hearings in 2017 on her nomination to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, when Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination The Senate should evoke RBG in its confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Pelosi, Mnuchin push stimulus talks forward, McConnell applies brakes MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told the nominee: “The dogma lives loudly within you.”

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Republicans advance Barrett's Supreme Court nomination after Democrats boycott committee vote MORE (D-Ill.), another member of the panel, asked Barrett whether she considered herself “an orthodox Catholic.”

Schumer wants to avoid a replay of those types of questions next week.

Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, a group that opposes Trump’s nominees, say Democrats are smart to keep the focus on issues instead of Barrett’s character or strong religious views.

He said the “risk exceeds the reward” in trying to make an issue of Barrett’s affiliation with outside groups.

“It can too easily be distorted into criticizing the basis of her faith, and we have ample enough grounds to oppose this process and to oppose her in terms of statements that she’s made about what she thinks about the [Affordable Care Act],” he said.

Democrats are also raising Barrett’s views on corporate rights, economic inequality and immigration as topics ahead of her hearing.

Sens. Blumenthal, Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFinal debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit Biden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform MORE (D-Mass.), Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowHealthcare, retirement security seen as top issues for older voters, lawmakers say Dems to focus on issues, not character, at Barrett hearings Lobbying world MORE (D-Mich.), Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats, gun control groups attack NRA for efforts to reshape judiciary Hillicon Valley: Threatening emails raise election concerns | Quibi folds after raising nearly B | Trump signs law making it a crime to hack voting systems Trump signs legislation making hacking voting systems a federal crime MORE (D-R.I.), Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Overnight Defense: Famed Navy SEAL calls Trump out | Yemen's Houthi rebels free two Americans | Marines fire commander after deadly training accident Trump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes MORE (D-R.I.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry MORE (D-Ohio) issued a report Monday highlighting what they called Barrett’s “track record of favoring big corporations over the rights of the American people.”

Feinstein issued a statement Tuesday warning that “Barrett would tilt the scales in support of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies” and argued that Barrett “repeatedly sided with administration policies” during her three-year stint on the 7th Circuit.