(Bloomberg) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s drive to confirm 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.
Although 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 lawmakers 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 over the weekend that it was “full steam ahead” on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, with Judiciary Committee hearings beginning Oct. 12.
The schedule laid out by Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, would have the committee voting on Barrett by Oct. 22. McConnell has said he would 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 Sunday that Democrats can’t 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 of North Carolina — have tested positive, as has a third Republican, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
The Judiciary 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 Judiciary 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 lawmakers, 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.
It isn’t clear yet when Lee, Tillis, and Johnson will be able to return to work. The two Judiciary panel members say aren’t experiencing serious symptoms and intend to self-isolate for 10 days. An aide to Johnson saying he’ll re-emerge when a doctor gives the “all clear.”
Tillis and Lee were among the senators at the Sept. 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 Judiciary members who were there — Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — said over the weekend that they tested negative. Two other senators who attended, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia also reported negative tests.
Lee attended a Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 30 and a committee meeting Oct. 1, potentially exposing a wider swath of the panel. The case of Johnson, who says he contracted the virus from an undisclosed person sometime after Sept. 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 Sunday that it’s “likely” there will be additional Covid-19 cases stemming from the outbreak in the White House and among Republican lawmakers.
He pointed to the GOP Senate lunch as one possible point of further spread.
“We hope not,” Gottlieb said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “But it’s more than likely we will see additional cases of third-generation spread.”
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 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 on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, also has balked 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.”
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