WASHINGTON—The event designed to present Amy Coney Barrett as President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is now complicating Senate Republicans’ effort to keep her confirmation on track.
At least eight people at a Rose Garden event on Saturday, Sept. 26, have tested positive for Covid-19, including two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee responsible for advancing the nomination. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said he intends to cancel Senate votes planned for the next two weeks, aiming to guard against the risk of the virus spreading in the Senate and sidelining more Republicans while keeping on track confirmation hearings set to begin Oct. 12.
“Every precaution needs to be taken because we don’t anticipate any Democratic support at all, either in committee or in the full Senate, and therefore, everybody needs to be in an all-hands-on-deck mind-set,” Mr. McConnell said Friday on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
The nightmare scenario for Mr. McConnell would be that so many Republicans fall ill that he is left unable to muster the quorum necessary to hold votes before Election Day. Under the U.S. Constitution, the Senate needs a majority to do business. Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The absence of three Republican senators would deprive Mr. McConnell of a majority from within his own conference should Democrats decide to use procedural tools to force Republicans to demonstrate that they have a quorum. Vice President Mike Pence isn’t a senator and can’t contribute to a quorum.
In the immediate term, the bigger complication was for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), whose plans call for holding opening statements on Monday, Oct. 12, before Judge Barrett is questioned. Mr. Graham had originally planned in-person hearings, but on Friday he said “any senator who wants to participate virtually will be allowed to do so.”
That statement left open the possibility of a virtual Supreme Court nomination hearing. Many on the Senate Judiciary Committee were potentially exposed Thursday to Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), an attendee of the Saturday event at the Rose Garden whose positive Covid-19 test result came back on Thursday night—after the committee meeting that day.
Beyond that, Mr. Graham will need to ensure that all 12 Republicans on the 22-member committee are physically present in order to vote on sending Judge Barrett’s nomination to the Senate floor. The Senate’s rules ban any recommendation from being reported out of the committee unless a majority of the committee members are physically present.
Mr. McConnell does have the option of bypassing the committee and bringing the nomination directly to the Senate floor. The Congressional Research Service said in a 2017 report that “although very few nominations proceed without the support of a committee, chamber rules make it possible for the full Senate to consider a nomination a committee does not report.”
Democrats blasted Republicans, saying GOP leaders were taking unnecessary risks by rushing.
“To proceed at this juncture with a hearing to consider Judge Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court threatens the health and safety of all those who are called upon to do the work of this body,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the committee, and other Democrats wrote to Mr. Graham. “Holding a remote hearing for a Supreme Court nomination is not an adequate substitute,” they wrote, because “questioning nominees by video is ineffective and ignores the gravity of our constitutional duty to provide advice and consent on lifetime appointments, particularly those to the nation’s highest court.”
CDC guidelines recommend that people stay home for 14 days from their last known contact with a person diagnosed with Covid-19.
That would make Friday, Oct. 16, the first day that any committee member who interacted with Mr. Lee at the recent meeting—or with either of the two other senators who have tested positive, committee member Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) and Ron Johnson (R., Wis.)—could participate in person at the hearings. That is four days after the Oct. 12 planned start date. While Mr. Tillis was also at the Rose Garden event, a video of the Thursday committee meeting didn’t reflect his presence.
Republicans insisted that they would be ready with opening statements when Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearing starts. While some avoided saying whether their participation would be in-person or virtual, others suggested they would show up in person.
One of those was Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who sat next to Mr. Lee at the Thursday meeting. “After interacting with Sen. Lee, in consultation with the attending physician, Sen. Cruz is remaining at home out of an abundance of caution,” a spokesman said. “He feels healthy, hasn’t exhibited any Covid-19 symptoms, and has tested negative. In accordance with medical advice he will return to the Senate for the Supreme Court nomination hearings.”
Negative test results don’t mean senators will remain in the clear. A CDC-funded study of cases found that the average incubation period was about five days, so a person who has the virus could be contagious even with a negative test. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), a committee Democrat who attended the Thursday meeting, has been advised by the Capitol physician to wait until next week to be tested, according to an aide.
Republicans don’t plan to vote to advance Judge Barrett out of committee until around Oct. 22, so they have more time should more senators on the Judiciary Committee need to isolate. The final confirmation vote on the Senate floor would occur shortly after the committee vote.
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