WASHINGTON – A coronavirus outbreak that infected President Trump and spread to the Senate threw a new element of uncertainty into the politically tense battle for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s installation on the Supreme Court ahead of Election Day, as Republicans promised to move forward, and the Democrats insisted on taking a break.
Getting a complex affirmation affecting all three branches of government in the remaining four weeks leading up to the elections has always promised a daunting task for Republicans amid a pandemic. But on Friday night, when the White House and Congress were in an uproar and two Republican judges committee members, Senators Mike Lee from Utah and Thom Tillis from North Carolina, announced that they had tested positive for the virus, it was clear that The challenge had become steeper.
It gave the Democrats, who were already protesting Trump’s push to establish a new Supreme Court Justice so close to the election, a new reason to demand a delay. Faced with a possible opening, top Democrats urged the Senate to halt and evaluate the scope of the outbreak. They stated that a fully virtual hearing of a candidate for a lifelong appointment to the country’s highest court was unacceptable.
“It is important that Chairman Graham puts the health of Senators, candidates and staff first – and ensures a full and fair hearing that is not rushed, not cut off and not virtual,” said Senator Chuck Schumer New York, the minority leader, and Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, said in a joint statement. “Otherwise this already illegitimate process will be dangerous.”
On Friday evening, after Mr Tillis announced his positive test result, Mr Schumer renewed his call to be late and wrote on Twitter that continuing the hearings was “irresponsible and dangerous”.
“There’s absolutely no good reason for it,” he said.
But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the panel, vowed he would stick to his schedule, and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and majority leader, said he intended to postpone the nomination once the committee approves it .
“I just finished a great phone call with @POTUS,” McConnell wrote on Twitter on Friday. “He’s in a good mood and we’ve talked about business – especially how impressed the Senators are with Judge Barrett’s qualifications. Full speed ahead for the fair, thorough and timely trial that the candidate, the court and the country deserve. “
Republican officials said they had no doubt that senators would find a way to build muscle by nominating over the Democratic protests. But Republicans can’t afford to get many members sick, which could give Democrats an opportunity to shut down. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, have already objected to moving forward before the election, which reduces the margin of the Republican majority from 53 to 47.
Mr McConnell has insisted that the Senate continue to meet in person during the pandemic, but he admitted Friday that keeping Republican Senators healthy is crucial to the nomination’s fate.
“I think every precaution must be taken because we do not expect democratic support either in the committee or in the entire Senate and therefore everyone has to be in an attitude that has all hands on deck. He said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
The stance surrounding the court battle played out as government officials ran at the White House and Capitol Hill on Friday to track down those who had come into contact with known carriers of the virus to see how far it had spread.
Mr Trump was close to Judge Barrett when he announced their nomination in the Rose Garden a week ago at a well-attended celebration where few masks or other precautions were evident. Another high profile contestant, Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, announced Friday that he had also tested positive.
Mr. Lee and Mr. Tillis were among at least eight Republican Senators who attended the White House event that recorded a video of Mr. Lee hugging other unmasked attendees. Mr. Tillis was wearing a mask.
Both men are on the Justice Committee and met with Judge Barrett on Capitol Hill this week without a mask, as did more than a dozen others. Mr. Tillis’ office posted a photo of the senator and the candidate who bumped their elbows. Both senators said they were feeling fine but would isolate themselves for 10 days after his diagnosis and put them on track to reappear on the day Mr. Graham intends to start Judge Barrett’s hearing.
Other lawmakers who had been around Mr. Trump or his aide said they were being tested. Among them were Mr. Graham, Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Rick Scott, Republican from Florida, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican from Georgia, who all announced they had tested negative.
Republican members of the Minnesota Congressional delegation who flew in with the President of Air Force One from Washington to a campaign rally in Duluth also said they were being tested.
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan flew on Air Force One for the presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday with the president and Hope Hicks, a close adviser to Mr. Trump, who tested positive Thursday. Mr Jordan announced on Friday that he had tested negative.
Concerns about the outbreak appeared to be changing the malicious approach by Congress to testing the thousands of people pouring in and out of the Capitol complex each week, many of whom fly in from across the country.
The attending physician’s office told lawmakers on Friday that same-day tests are now being offered at the Capitol to lawmakers who have shown possible coronavirus symptoms or who have been exposed to someone who had tested positive. Employees who came in contact with someone who tested positive could also get tests, the office said.
The announcement came after Mr Schumer expressed his deep concern about the health outlook at the Capitol following Mr Trump’s positive test.
“This episode shows that the Senate needs a testing and tracing program for senators, staff, and everyone who works in the Capitol Complex,” Schumer said. “We simply cannot allow the government’s reckless attitude to adversely affect this branch of government. It is imperative that all results are published in order to contain a possible outbreak. Hence, we can determine if senators and staff need to be quarantined or isolated themselves. “
New fears over the spread of the virus only heightened opposition to Judge Barrett’s nomination among Democrats, who were already outraged that Republicans were running to confirm a Supreme Court judge who was close to election after becoming president Barack Obama had prevented Barack Obama from filling a job nine months earlier on Election Day 2016.
However, given the doubts about President Trump’s re-election and the risk of their party losing its Senate majority, Republicans are even more eager to get the candidate approved quickly. They insisted they were entitled to move on with the nomination, given that Mr Trump was elected in 2016 and Republicans got Senate seats in 2018, an argument that would be undermined by losses in November.
Some Republican aides urged to abandon plans to keep the Senate in session next week in hopes of reducing the risk of infecting more Republican senators. However, the adjournment cannot be under the control of Mr McConnell. He had advocated letting senators go home, but Democrats who tried to cause pain to Republicans for rushing to the seat of the Supreme Court refused to use parliamentary tactics to prevent it.
Regarding Judge Barrett, two officers with knowledge of her medical history said she already had the coronavirus and had recovered that year, which may have given her some immunity. However, it was not yet clear whether she would continue her courtesy meetings with senators in person next week.
She tested negative for the virus on Friday, officials said.
Emily Cochrane and Catie Edmondson contributed to the coverage.