Crunch Time: McConnell Is 'Full Steam Ahead' on SCOTUS, But Can He Confirm in Time?


As high-profile cases of coronavirus continue to crop up from the White House to Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is doubling down on expedited efforts to confirm U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The Kentucky Republican assured American political audiences via Twitter on Friday morning that the Senate would soldier on with the confirmation process at “full steam ahead,” despite President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

“Just finished a great phone call with @POTUS. He’s in good spirits and we talked business — especially how impressed Senators are with the qualifications of Judge Barrett,” the Senate majority leader tweeted.

“Full steam ahead with the fair, thorough, timely process that the nominee, the Court, & the country deserve.”

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The president initially announced his diagnosis early Friday morning on Twitter, adding that first lady Melania Trump had also contracted the disease and would be heading into quarantine alongside him.

White House senior advisor Hope Hicks had previously been diagnosed just hours earlier on Thursday — a development that sparked no shortage of viral transmission concerns, particularly given the proximity of the diagnosis to a formal nomination announcement hosted for Barrett in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 26, ABC News reported.

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Capitol Hill was not spared either, as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah announced later Friday that he too had contracted the coronavirus and would be quarantining, despite the large-looming confirmation bout.

“On advice of the Senate attending physician, I will remain isolated for the next 10 days,” Lee said in a statement. “Like so many other Utahns, I will now spend part of 2020 working from home.”

Having come in contact with both Trump and Lee between the nomination announcement and subsequent individual meetings with GOP senators, Barrett was also considered to be at risk for contracting the disease.

The judge will not, however, be forced to delay the process over health concerns, having tested for the disease Friday and potentially being at lower risk due to a reported infection over the summer.

Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is similarly expected not pose a risk to the process, assuring Friday that he would be “back to work” in time to hear Barrett as she comes before the Senate for the usual judicial fitness hearings.

“I have spoken with Leader McConnell and [Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Lindsey] Graham and assured them I will be back to work in time to join my Judiciary Committee colleagues in advancing the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the committee and then to the full Senate,” Lee said.

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An anonymously sourced report published by NPR the day of Barrett’s Rose Garden nomination indicated the first set of hearings for the judge will begin on Oct. 12 and proceed for just four days.

Graham confirmed that claim, in part, the following morning on “Sunday Morning Features,” telling Fox News host Maria Bartiromo that the process would consist of a one-day introduction and “two days of questioning,” followed by mark-up and final voting.

His timeline would see Barrett’s nomination reported out of committee to the general body by Oct. 22, leaving a buffer of just 11 days between committee confirmation and the 2020 presidential election on Nov. 3 — assuming, of course, that the full Senate does not take up Barrett’s nomination the same day that it’s reported out of committee and that the Senate does not vote on her nomination on Election Day itself.

“It will be up to Sen. McConnell as to what to do with the nomination once it comes out of committee,” Graham said.

In addition to Lee, GOP Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin announced on Friday and Saturday, respectively, that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Tillis is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, though Graham told CNN on Friday night that he still intended to start the confirmation hearings on Oct. 12 and have the panel approve the nomination by Oct. 22.

He also tweeted that “Any Senator who wants to participate [in the confirmation hearings] virtually will be allowed to do so.”

Faced with resounding calls for delay on the part of the Democratic Party, meanwhile, McConnell has been anything but shy in telegraphing his intention to move as quickly as possible with the confirmation process, initially saying so in the hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Sept. 18.

“In the last midterm election before Justice [Antonin] Scalia’s death in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we pledged to check and balance the last days of a lame-duck president’s second term,” McConnell said.

“We kept our promise. Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president’s Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

“By contrast, Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” the majority leader added.

“Once again, we will keep our promise.”

While some have suggested the speed with which the Senate GOP is moving to confirm Barrett leaves them with no margin for error, Graham downplayed such concerns in his Sept. 27 appearance on Fox News, saying, “More than half of the Supreme Court justices who have had hearings were done within 16 days or less.”

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the 15 Supreme Court nominees able to successfully complete process between 1975 and 2017 saw an average of 12 days elapse between their committee report and final floor vote.

That reality leaves McConnell and Graham deep in crunch time, with just 11 full days between their own scheduled committee report and Election Day.

Should the timeline hold, only one member of the Senate GOP has definitively announced intentions to oppose Barrett in a hypothetical floor vote: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Her opposition would effectively handicap the 53-47 Republican Senate majority by one vote.

It could not, however, defeat the judge’s confirmation without three other GOP defections.

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