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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 SasseBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Neb.), questioning Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettGraham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Supreme Court sees new requests for religious COVID-19 carve-outs MORE, issued some fighting words: “I’d like to talk about the Houston Astros, who are miserable cheaters.” 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Pressure builds as UK approves COVID-19 vaccine Biden brushes off criticism of budget nominee 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 CruzGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge 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 GrahamGraham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country 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 KavanaughGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Supreme Court sees new requests for religious COVID-19 carve-outs For Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty 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 HawleyGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Trump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners 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 WhitehouseCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE (D-R.I.) namechecked Cornyn in his speech on Tuesday, and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden officially clinches Electoral College votes with California certification Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Trump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs 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 FeinsteinFeinstein pushes for California secretary of state to replace Harris in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot 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.”