Washington • The coronavirus reached further into Republican ranks on Saturday, forcing the Senate to call off lawmaking as a third GOP senator tested positive for COVID-19. Even so, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared he would push President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee toward confirmation in the shadow of the November election.
Trump and Senate Republicans had hoped the confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s would make the final case to voters of the party’s commitment to remake the court with a muscular conservative majority. But the hospitalization of Trump, and the infection of a trio of GOP senators, shattered any notion of changing the subject entirely from the virus that’s killed more than 205,000 Americans.
So great was the threat posed by COVID-19 that McConnell called off floor proceedings but not Barrett’s hearings, slated to begin Oct. 12. The Kentucky Republican, who is battling to save the GOP majority and running for reelection himself, was not about to give them up.
“The Senate’s floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair and historically supported confirmation process,” McConnell wrote Saturday. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who like McConnell is running for reelection, added that senators can attend the hearings remotely.
“Certainly,” McConnell said, “all Republican members of the committee will participate in these important hearings.”
But by weeks' end, the relentless virus made clear it wouldn’t cede the national stage to anyone.
It had sidelined the president of the United States after a busy week of ceremonies and other events where few attendees wore masks, including on Air Force One. In the wee hours of Friday, Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had been infected. Hours later, Trump was given supplemental oxygen and flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Republicans in the Senate who had attended GOP events began announcing that they too had tested positive. First was Utah Sen. Mike Lee, then North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis. On Saturday, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin announced he too had been infected. Several other Republicans announced they were awaiting test results or quarantining at home just to be safe.
Members of the House and Senate, meanwhile, increasingly demanded that Congress adopt uniform testing and tracing plans for anyone in the warren of the Capitol.
McConnell, who advocates often for mask-wearing, bowed to the concerns by pushing Senate business to Oct. 19. But he made clear that the Barrett nomination would open Oct. 12 as planned.
“Just had another great call with @POTUS,” McConnell tweeted Saturday afternoon. “He sounds well and says he’s feeling good. We talked about the people’s business — fighting the pandemic, confirming Judge Barrett, and strengthening the economy for American families.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer took aim at McConnell’s plan, saying that if the COVID threat is too great for Senate sessions, it makes Barrett’s confirmation perilous, too.
The Republicans' “monomaniacal drive to confirm Judge Barrett at all costs needlessly threatens the health and safety of Senators, staff, and all those who work in the Capitol complex,” Schumer said in a statement.
Schumer notably did not say Democrats would block McConnell’s plan. Doing so could force the Senate back into the confines of the Capitol, where no one wants to be, without the mandatory testing of lawmakers and their aides.
McConnell had led the Senate this spring in an early return to the Capitol, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put in place a new system that allows lawmakers in the much larger chamber to vote by proxy rather than trek to Washington.
But even McConnell’s efforts at creating a semblance of normalcy in the Senate splintered with the quick-moving developments following the president’s hospitalization. The news about Covid’s march into the White House didn’t let up and wasn’t flattering after months of complaints that Republicans weren’t approaching the pandemic in a serious or organized way.
For example, Trump’s doctors on Saturday painted a rosy picture of the president’s health during a press conference. Navy Commander Dr. Sean Conley refused to say whether the president had ever needed supplemental oxygen and declined to discuss exactly when Trump fell ill. Conley also revealed that Trump began exhibiting “clinical indications” of COVID-19 on Thursday afternoon, earlier than previously known.
According to a person familiar with Trump’s condition, Trump was administered oxygen at the White House on Friday before he was transported to the military hospital. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity,
Concern began with the White House Rose Garden ceremony last Saturday where Trump introduced Barrett. In the audience, where few people wore masks, were members of the Judiciary Committee that will handle confirmation hearings. Trump also traveled to Minnesota for a rally, after which a top aide, Hope Hicks, fell ill and was diagnosed with the disease.
The Trumps were diagnosed on Thursday, the White House said. The next day, Tillis and Lee, two members of the Judiciary Committee that will handle Barrett’s confirmation, announced that like Trump, they had tested positive for the virus. A cascade of others in the president’s circle followed with similar news.
With three Republican senators infected and others awaiting results, McConnell is without a fully working majority of 50 senators. He would need to rely on Vice President Mike Pence to be on hand to break any tie votes.
Amid the outbreak, members of both chambers of Congress called for a comprehensive testing plan for Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell have resisted doing so because universal testing is not available to everyone in America.
Some senators called for a more stringent protocol and contact tracing for Congress. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called on McConnell to require immediate tests for every senator and staff member who has visited the White House over the past two weeks.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.