A deadlocked Senate greets Amy Coney Barrett

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — There had once been better days on Capitol Hill. That was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s message at the opening of confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, nominated last month to the Supreme Court. Graham, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, reminded the panel that Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who died last month — had been confirmed in a 96-to-3 vote in 1993. That kind of consensus would be unimaginable today.

“I don’t know what happened between then and now,” a somber Graham said. “I guess we can all take some blame.”

Blame was the order of the day. Democrats blamed Trump and congressional Republicans for nominating Barrett against Ginsburg’s dying wishes and rushing the confirmation process in hopes of winning a conservative majority on the high court.

“I think this hearing is a sham,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Amy Klobuchar, center
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center, at the confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/Pool via Reuters)

Democrats’ frustrations were especially acute because two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thom Thillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah, had tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a Rose Garden event announcing Barrett’s nomination.

Several members of the committee are in their 80s, but Graham stuck to an aggressive hearing schedule. With the presidential election only three weeks away, delay could mean doom for the nomination.

Tillis attended the meeting remotely, but Lee was present in the Hart Senate Office Building, speaking without a facial covering.

“We should not be holding this hearing when it is plainly unsafe to do so,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who also attended via digital link. “Every senator on this committee knows in her or his heart that this is wrong.”

Republicans, though, intend to push through over Democratic objections. Though he warned of a “long, contentious week,” Graham also vowed to move Barrett’s nomination to the full Senate within a matter of days.

Monday’s proceedings were less contentious than they were predictable. Democrats warned that Barrett would work to strike down the Affordable Care Act, leaving millions of Americans without health care coverage. Republicans charged Democrats with “anti-Catholic bigotry,” as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., put it.

Josh Hawley
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. (Susan Walsh, Pool via AP)

Democrats had, in fact, sharply questioned Barrett about her conservative Catholic beliefs when Trump nominated her to the appellate bench in 2017, but those attacks went over poorly. Consequently, they refrained from any reference to Barrett’s personal beliefs on Monday. That made Republican defense of those beliefs seem somewhat out of place.

As they have indicated they would do since the moment Barrett was nominated, Democrats repeatedly sought to make the hearing about health care and the future of former President Barack Obama’s signature health law. They charged that, having failed to repeal the law through legislative means, Republicans are now trying to overturn it in the courts, which Trump has stocked with his own appointees at every level.

“This Supreme Court nominee has signaled — in the judicial equivalent of all-caps — that she believes the Affordable Care Act must go, and that the precedent protecting the ACA doesn’t matter,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “The big, secretive influences behind this unseemly rush see this nominee as a judicial torpedo they are firing at the ACA.”

With both sides performing for their respective audiences, Barrett herself seemed lost in the bitter, if expected, partisan back-and-forth. In her opening remarks, which had been released the day before to the public, she affirmed that neither religious convictions nor political pressures would interfere with her ability to properly adjudicate a case.

Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

Such careful assurances are a rite of passage for any judicial nominee who came of age in the wake of the failed 1987 nomination of Robert Bork. It isn’t until those assurances are challenged by legislators, who will have an opportunity to question Barrett in the coming days, that an accurate picture of who she is, and what she believes about the business of judging, may come fully into view.

Back in 2018, on the first day of confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, the D.C. Circuit judge said that he lived “on the sunrise side of the mountain, not the sunset side of the mountain.” Three weeks later, battered by allegations of sexual assault, a not-especially-sunny Kavanaugh was fulminating about his beer-loving habits.

Barrett does not have similar allegations to address. But as far as Democrats are concerned, she still has plenty of questions to answer.

Cover thumbnail photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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