During the first day of hearings promising to highlight the nation’s political polarization heading into the election, Republicans praised the qualifications of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as Democrats raised fears about her possible deciding vote in ending health care coverage for millions of Americans.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee showed up with a doctor’s note declaring himself symptom-free after a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine and vowed to do everything in his power to keep the hearing focused on Barrett’s command of and respect for the law and to fend off questions of Barrett’s political views.
“I will object any time anyone tries to attribute to you a policy position and hold you to that," Lee said in his opening statement, which did not mention the coronavirus for which he had tested positive the same day as President Donald Trump. “You’re not a policymaker. You’re a judge.”
Ranking committee Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others, warned that “health care coverage for millions of Americans is at stake with this nomination” as staffers displayed pictures of people who would suffer if Barrett helps to overturn Obamacare.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and a former presidential candidate, acknowledged Democrats lack the numbers to stop the nomination, which she called “a sham.” But she urged voters to call their senators and demand a delay until after the election.
“This isn’t Donald Trump’s country, it is yours,” she said.
Lee dismissed the warnings.
“These tactics of creating fear and uncertainty and doubt,” the Utah Republican said, “... dismay me and they disappoint me. They reflect the fact that we have allowed for the politicization of the one branch of the federal government that is not political. We can turn that around.”
Speaking directly to Barrett, Lee said, “You have compassion for all people. But that isn’t the question, nor is the question before us whether you would agree or disagree as to any particular policy embedded within any particular statute. You understand that this isn’t your job, not as a judge.”
Lee said the role of a Supreme Court justice is to interpret the Constitution as written, and he waved his pocket copy of the founding document. “This is a thing that works and works best when every one of us reads it, understands it and takes and honors an oath to uphold that and protect it and defend it.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that “this is going to be a long, contentious week.”
But he began the confirmation hearing by talking about proceeding during the pandemic — after he greeted Lee and noted his attendance. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who also had COVID-19, participated online and not in person.
Graham said COVID-19 “is real, it’s dangerous and we have to mitigate the risk. ... But we do have a country that needs to move forward safely. And there are millions of Americans, cops, waitresses, nurses, you name it, going to work today to do their job. And we’re going to work in the Senate to do our job.”
Some Democrats questioned whether proceeding was safe. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said, “Who has been tested? Who is a danger? What contact tracing has been done on infected and exposed senators and staff? Nothing. The whole thing, just like Trump, is an irresponsible botch.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., complained that because of Lee and Tillis being diagnosed with COVID-19, “We have no idea what kind of threat they or others pose to those around them today because they refuse to agree to mandatory testing.”
Lee posted a letter from his doctor saying, in part, that he hasn’t had a fever for at least 24 hours and other symptoms have improved.
Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the letter said, “You have met criteria to end COVID-19 isolation for those with mild to moderate disease. Specifically, it has been greater than 10 days since symptom onset, you have had no fever in absence of fever-reducing medication for at least 24 hours, and your other symptoms have improved.”
It added he no longer needs testing for COVID-19.
The confirmation hearing’s first day was reserved for opening statements and was conducted with few people present to allow for social distancing. Those attending wore masks, when not speaking into microphones. Some senators chose to participate online instead of in person.
Lee developed COVID-19 days after attending a White House ceremony, where Trump announced Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee. Others attending that event also got sick, including Trump himself, though it is unclear if they caught it there or elsewhere. This weekend, Trump also said he was cured and no longer poses a threat of spreading the disease. He’s resuming in-person campaign events this week.
Lee’s personal appearance comes after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., said Sunday that Democrats would not supply needed quorums to vote on Barrett, which requires Republicans to show up.
Lee said Monday that in the Judiciary Committee itself, Republicans don’t need any Democrats to form a quorum. That assumes enough are able to appear in person, as rules require, and do not need to stay away because of COVID-19.
If Democrats do not show up or attempt other tricks, Lee said, “Rest assured. I’ve been talking to the committee chairman and to my colleagues. There are lots of things we can do in response to that. I hope they won’t go in that direction. I think that would be unsportsmanlike. I think that would be unprecedented. And I don’t think there’s a good reason for them to do it.”
Democrats have been fighting Barrett’s nomination, noting that four years ago, Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland by saying it was too close to the election and the next president should choose a replacement. However, this year, they are pushing Barrett’s nomination quickly, possibly before Election Day.