Republicans are vowing a quick confirmation for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, as the party goes all in on the judiciary in the final week before the November election.
The GOP decision to try to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett only days before Nov. 3 — a process that will start when her Judiciary Committee hearings kick off on Monday — comes in the face of a coronavirus outbreak in the Senate and protests from Democrats that the plan endangers public health.
Three GOP senators have tested positive for the coronavirus, and an additional three are in quarantine.
The cases have raised new doubts about the party’s ambitious confirmation timeline, which is already controversial given its proximity to the presidential election.
Top Republicans are brushing aside calls to reevaluate.
“That’s the plan and there’s nothing I can see that would keep that from happening,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during an interview on Fox News.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and close ally of McConnell, added that if “he was betting” he would expect Barrett to be confirmed during the final week of October.
“I think we’ll see it happen this month,” he said.
Republicans hold a 53-seat majority in the Senate. Barrett will only need a simple majority — 50 “yes” votes and Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie if all 100 senators are present — to be confirmed after Republicans nixed the 60-vote filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in 2017.
The path for Barrett could be even narrower. Two GOP senators — Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have said they don’t believe a nominee should get a vote before the Nov. 3 election.
That would leave Barrett with at least 51 “yes” votes in what would be one of the smallest margins for a Supreme Court pick, if they both vote no. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second nominee, was confirmed 50-48, which was the slimmest margin since 1881.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is confident no other Republicans senators will oppose Barrett.
“As I see it, we have a solid 51 votes right now. And from the conversations in the conference, I don’t see that changing,” Cruz said during a Washington Post Live event, adding that he was “very confident” Barrett will be confirmed before the election.
Democrats would need a total of four GOP senators to vote against Barrett — a potentially herculean task given the party’s devotion to confirming judicial picks and the significant political blowback a GOP senator would get for defying Trump, McConnell and conservatives.
Democrats acknowledge that, absent a surprise or a broader outbreak of the coronavirus, the GOP is likely to meet its goal. But they are weighing the use of any procedural lever they can to slow the nomination. And Democrats are calling for Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to require COVID-19 testing of all senators.
The Senate’s outbreak of the coronavirus has hit the Judiciary Committee particularly hard. Two Republican senators, Mike Lee (Utah) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) have tested positive and another two, Cruz and Ben Sasse (Neb.), are in quarantine.
Democrats aren’t expected to help Republicans make quorum at either the Oct. 15 meeting, where Barrett’s nomination would be on the agenda for the first time, or the Oct. 22 meeting, where it’s expected to get a vote.
Things could reach a boiling point on Oct. 22. Under committee rules a majority of the panel will need to be present to send Barrett’s nomination onto the full Senate, teeing up a final floor vote for the final week of October. With a total of 22 members on the committee, that would mean Graham would need all 12 GOP senators back in Washington.
Underscoring the seriousness Republicans are placing on the court fight, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the third GOP senator to be infected over the past week, pledged that he would go in a “moon suit” if his vote was needed to confirm Barrett and lock in a 6-3 conservative majority.
Trump has also urged Republicans to focus on Barrett’s nomination, after pulling the plug on coronavirus relief negotiations.
Republicans view the Supreme Court battle as beneficial to most of their Senate candidates and a top priority for their base, even as economists warn that a lack of additional coronavirus aid could have devastating consequences that carries political risks for the president and Congress in the final days of the election.
“I have asked Mitch McConnell not to delay, but to instead focus full time on approving my outstanding nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. Our Economy is doing very well. The Stock Market is at record levels, JOBS and unemployment also coming back in record numbers. We are leading the World in Economic Recovery, and THE BEST IS YET TO COME!” Trump tweeted.
The decision by Trump to end the talks — which he subsequently softened by expressing interest in smaller piecemeal bills — sparked pushback from GOP senators who are on the ballot in tough reelection fights.
Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Trump to consider a $1.5 trillion bipartisan House bill, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called ending the negotiations a “huge mistake.” Both are in the toughest battles of their political lives.
McConnell, asked if Trump’s coronavirus strategy would hurt his incumbents, argued that they should be putting the Supreme Court, not the pandemic, at the forefront of the final weeks of their campaigns.
“What’s really going to help the Senate races I think is putting the Supreme Court justice front and center,” he said. “Every single challenger to every one of my incumbents is opposed to this nominee, every one of them, so we’ll let the American people in each of these states that are hotly contested decide how important the United States Supreme Court is in casting their vote.”