Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t plan to let President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis stop him from confirming a Supreme Court justice.
But now that a handful of Republican senators—including two on the critical Senate Judiciary Committee, tasked with approving Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination—have tested positive for the coronavirus, that ambitious scheme may be upended.
COVID-19 tore through Trumpworld on Friday. Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, announced that he had tested positive to the coronavirus and would now isolate himself for 10 days, although he pledged to be back at work in time to advance Barrett’s nomination. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis also announced late Friday that he tested positive and planned to isolate for 10 days.
Both men are members of the Judiciary Committee. They also both attended a White House Rose Garden ceremony last Saturday, where more than 150 people gathered to celebrate Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. (Barrett, who currently serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has tested negative for the coronavirus.)
Still, on Saturday, McConnell doubled down on his promise to confirm Barrett, even though Trump had been transferred to the hospital the day before. Although Senate floor activity will be rescheduled until October 19, he said, the Senate Judiciary Committee is still set to start hearings about Barrett on October 12.
“Since May, the Judiciary Committee has operated flawlessly through a hybrid method that has seen some Senators appear physically at its hearings while other members have participated virtually,” McConnell said in a statement. “The committee has utilized this format successfully for many months while protecting the health and safety of all involved. Certainly all Republican members of the committee will participate in these important hearings.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the Senate minority leader, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, released a joint statement on Friday condemning any plan to hold Barrett’s confirmation hearing virtually.
“There is bipartisan agreement that a virtual hearing for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench is not an acceptable substitute. All circuit court nominees have appeared in person during the pandemic,” they said. “There is far more at stake for the American people with this Supreme Court nomination, including the Affordable Care Act being struck down and more than 7 million COVID survivors being denied health coverage.”
But now, questions are swirling not only about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ability to hold the meeting, but Republicans ability to successfully win the vote on Barrett’s confirmation on the Senate floor. So far, it’s not clear whether the Senate would vote remotely on the matter.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is not on the Senate Judiciary Committee but whose vote would likely be needed to confirm Barrett before the full Senate, has also tested positive for the virus, his spokesperson said, CNN reported Saturday. He intends to remain in isolation until his doctor says otherwise.
That announcement has left the GOP with very little margin for error. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have indicated that they will vote against Barrett’s nomination. With a 53-47 majority in the Senate, Republicans can’t lose more than three votes if they want to confirm Barrett, whose ascension to the Supreme Court would cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench.
McConnell had hoped to vote on Barrett ahead of the election on November 3. The Senate could instead vote on her confirmation during the lame-duck session, once the sick senators can safely return to work, but Republicans are hoping to avoid that scenario due to the GOP’s precarious hold on the chamber, according to CNN.
Meanwhile, Trump, at 74, is in an age group that’s deeply susceptible to becoming very ill after contracting COVID-19. On Friday, the White House announced that he was being taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, just hours after his physician said Trump planned to remain at the White House.