US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT
US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT

Washington DC — Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s drive to confirm US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett by election day is now in peril from a coronavirus outbreak among Republicans in Washington.

Three GOP senators have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past few days and at least eight others are known to have had direct exposure. Several are in self-isolation. The infected senators also attended a Senate Republican lunch last week and committee meetings, raising the risk of even wider contagion.

Though none of those who tested positive so far have reported falling seriously ill, McConnell’s already narrow margin for confirming judge Amy Coney Barrett would evaporate if just three GOP legislators are unable to vote when her nomination is brought to the floor.

McConnell is putting the Senate on hiatus for the next two weeks, but he insisted at the weekend that it was “full steam ahead” on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, with judiciary committee hearings beginning on October 12.

The schedule set down by Republican committee chair Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, will have the committee voting on Barrett by October 22. McConnell has said he will bring it to the full Senate as soon as the panel’s work is done, which would mean a confirmation vote about a week before election day.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged on Sunday that Democrats cannot block the hearings but vowed to use “every tool in the toolbox” to try to delay a final confirmation vote. But the virus could prove more powerful than parliamentary procedures.

Two members of the Senate judiciary committee — Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis — have tested positive, as has a third Republican, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

The committee has allowed members to participate in hearings and business meetings remotely since the pandemic hit, but Republicans have two critical junctures where they must have enough senators present and able to cast votes in the confirmation.

In the committee, the rules require a quorum of 12 senators showing up in person for a meeting to advance a nomination to the floor. That, in turn, could require all 12 Republican senators to be present and vote, including Lee and Tillis, if Democrats boycott.

In the 100-member Senate, Republicans have 53 seats. But two GOP legislators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they oppose holding the vote before the election. If they ultimately vote against confirmation, McConnell has little leeway if there are Republicans unable to vote as a result of illness.

In isolation

It is not clear yet when Lee, Tillis, and Johnson will be able to return to work. The two committee panel members say they are not experiencing serious symptoms and intend to self-isolate for 10 days. An aide to Johnson said he will re-emerge when a doctor gives the “all-clear”.

Tillis and Lee were among the senators at the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony where Barrett was first introduced by Trump as his nominee. At least eight people at that event have reported testing positive for Covid-19, including the president.

Other committee members who were there — Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — said at the weekend they had tested negative. Two other senators who attended, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia also reported negative tests.

Lee attended a committee hearing on September 30 and a committee meeting on October 1, potentially exposing a wider swathe of the panel. The case of Johnson, who says he contracted the virus from an undisclosed person sometime after September 29, suggests interactions among senators in the Capitol might have further spread the disease.

Scott Gottlieb, who was Food and Drug Administration commissioner from 2017 to 2019, said on Sunday that it was “likely” there will be additional Covid-19 cases stemming from the outbreak in the White House and among Republican legislators.

He pointed to the GOP Senate lunch as one possible point of further spread.

“We hope not,” Gottlieb said. “But it’s more than likely we will see additional cases of third-generation spread.”

Wheeled in

One Republican senator scoffed at the idea that illness among senators could get in the way of a Barrett confirmation. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on Sunday that there is “a long and venerable tradition of ill or medically infirm senators being wheeled in to cast critical votes on the Senate floor”, citing a moment in 2009 when an ailing Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was brought in to cast a vote for Obamacare.

“So I’m confident that every senator will be in attendance when his or her vote is needed,” Cotton said.

At the same time, finger-pointing over the Senate’s safety practices has ensued.

McConnell on Friday at an event in his home state of Kentucky dismissed a question about Schumer’s call for a testing regime, saying that the Senate had been successfully following the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has also baulked at instituting regular testing. Both leaders have come under criticism for not doing so.

“I have asked McConnell repeatedly that all of our senators and staff get testing,” but McConnell has resisted, Schumer said. “I think he is very, very wrong.”

Bloomberg

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