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Senators dial down rhetoric at Barrett hearing after 2018 Kavanaugh brawl

Senators dial down rhetoric at Barrett hearing after 2018 Kavanaugh brawl
© Greg Nash

A scuffle broke out in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It was about baseball.  

Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseToomey warns GOP colleagues to stay away from earmarks Bipartisan lawmakers signal support for Biden cybersecurity picks To encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision MORE (R-Neb.), questioning Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettDemocratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Democrats roll out legislation to expand Supreme Court Pelosi says she won't bring bill to expand Supreme Court to the floor MORE, issued some fighting words: “I’d like to talk about the Houston Astros, who are miserable cheaters.” 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues GOP acknowledges struggle to bring down Biden Intelligence leaders push for mandatory breach notification law MORE (R-Texas) sitting a row back cut in, quipping: “Thank goodness the First Amendment protects that right.” Fellow Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzRepublicans who backed Trump impeachment see fundraising boost US has seen 45 mass shootings in the past month The Hill's 12:30 Report: Nearly half of U.S. adults partially or fully vaccinated MORE (R) dramatically slammed his hand on the dais. 

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“I was tempted to make a parliamentary inquiry if the unjustified broadside from the senator from Nebraska violates Rule 19 of this body,” Cruz fired back, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWall Street spent .9B on campaigns, lobbying in 2020 election: study Biden aide: Ability to collect daily intel in Afghanistan 'will diminish' Leaving Afghanistan: Is it victory or defeat? MORE (R-S.C.) could be heard muttering “here we go.” 

The quips are a 180 from the political firestorm the Judiciary Committee found itself at the center of in 2018 as it considered Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughBiden's court-packing theater could tame the Supreme Court's conservatives Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting NY Times beclowns itself by normalizing court-packing 'to balance the conservative majority' MORE’s Supreme Court nomination. 

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), giving his opening statement this week, described the 2018 bloodbath as a “freak show.”  

“It looked like the cantina bar scene out of Star Wars,” Kennedy added.  

The first three days of Barrett’s hearing decidedly did not. 

Graham went viral in 2018 when he lashed out, growing red in the face as he yelled at Democrats on the panel.

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“What you want to do is destroy this guy's life,” he had shouted. 

This week, he’s defended the process he established for moving Barrett’s nomination but also tipped his hand to Democratic frustrations.  

“To my Democratic colleagues, I understand where you're coming from. I understand what you want the court to do. You want the court to do things different than we do. I don't question your motives, and I want to thank you for conducting this hearing in a way that has been respectful, has been challenging, and the process will be moving forward here,” Graham said on Wednesday. 

Asked about the difference on Wednesday, Graham thanked colleagues for being respectful to both Barrett and to Republicans on the committee. 

“This is the way it could be, it should be, but to my colleagues, you've allowed the judge to answer hard questions completely. We have different views about what her answer means. But to me, this is a standard going forward,” he said. 

Part of the change in tone boils down to the set up the hearing itself.

During the fight over Kavanaugh, protesters lined the hallways around the Judiciary Committee hearing room, staked out senators at unrelated hearings and went viral with their interactions with lawmakers. During the hearing itself, senators were frequently interrupted by protesters in the audience and women wearing red habits modeled after the "Handmaid's Tale" lined the hallways. 

Now, the Capitol has been closed since earlier this year due to the spread of the coronavirus. No members of the public are allowed into the office buildings without an appointment, and the audience in the room itself was limited to a handful of reporters, Barrett’s family and a small number of seats for invited guests.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have an audience and the protest and the police having to intervene. So I think it’s made for a more civil hearing,” Cornyn said.  

The panel hit technical difficulties on Wednesday when microphones in the room temporarily cut out. A group of senators, including Cornyn, Durbin, Cruz and Graham, could be heard laughing loudly as they huddled in the back of the room. 

There were flashes of frustration over the three days. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyRepublicans who backed Trump impeachment see fundraising boost Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring MORE (R-Mo.) accused Democrats of trying to “bork” Barrett, a reference to Robert Bork, whose 1980s Supreme Court nomination was rejected. Kennedy said Democrats called Barrett “a liar.” 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseFor a win on climate, let's put our best player in the game Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Democrats wrestle over tax hikes for infrastructure MORE (D-R.I.) namechecked Cornyn in his speech on Tuesday, and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Florida nurse arrested, accused of threatening to kill Harris Oddsmakers say Harris, not Biden, most likely to win 2024 nomination, election MORE (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee and a member of the panel, referenced several states where GOP members on the committee are up for reelection. 

While the overall temperature inside the room has been lowered, the stakes of Barrett’s nomination are high.  

Republicans will set a precedent for how close to a presidential election a nominee can be confirmed if they put Barrett on the bench later this month. Barrett, if she’s confirmed, will lock in a 6-3 conservative majority for decades, with one Washington Post analysis predicting it would be the most conservative Supreme Court since 1950.  

Progressives wanted Democrats to pull out all the stops to protest the GOP’s plan and underscore that Barrett could not be treated like a normal nominee.  

Democrats, while digging in on her views on issues like health care, voting rights and the Second Amendment, have kept things from getting personal, avoided Barrett’s religion altogether and bantered with the judge.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinOvernight Defense: Army moves to combat sexual crimes | Eight West Point cadets expelled | Democratic senators want to restrict F-35 sale to UAE A proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US Democratic senators seek to constrain F-35 sale to UAE MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, complemented Barrett on Tuesday and Wednesday on her family. 

“Judge, it's wonderful to see you here, also with a family that I have been observing. They sit still, quiet. You've done a very good job,” Feinstein said on Tuesday as she started her questions. 

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Feinstein added on Wednesday she was “delighted” to see her family and that “this is really a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. So I hope they find it very special in their lives.” 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) questioning of Barrett on Wednesday began with a friendly joke as he told her that he hoped she “got some rest.” 

“I did have a glass of wine. I’ll tell you that I needed that at the end of the day,” Barrett replied.  

Blumenthal, with a smile, joked back: “Let me just say on that kind of point you have a right to remain silent.”