Trump and Lee's Coronavirus Diagnoses Won't Impact Barrett Hearings

Amy Coney Barrett / Getty Images
October 2, 2020

Senate Republicans are keeping to their confirmation timeline for Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, even as President Donald Trump's coronavirus diagnosis has upended the 2020 campaign.

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R. North Carolina), both key Republican lawmakers, also tested positive for the virus and will isolate for the next 10 days. Though Lee and Tillis sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans are proceeding undeterred with plans for an in-person confirmation hearing beginning Monday, Oct. 12, albeit with many precautions.

"Committee staff are working in concert with the Architect of the Capitol, Office of the Attending Physician, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, and the Rules Committee to ensure the nomination hearing for Judge Barrett is conducted safely and in accordance with public health recommendations—as we have done for all recent hearings," a Republican committee aide told the Washington Free Beacon.

Those precautions include hand-sanitizing and PPE stations, strict limits on attendance, and appropriate social distancing. The committee anticipates moving to a larger space to ensure appropriate spacing between attendees. Members of the committee will have the option of participating remotely, the aide added.

The Senate has conducted remote hearings since the spring, so the move would not be novel. Members of the Judiciary Committee in both parties participated remotely in hearings on appeals court nominees Justin Walker and Cory Wilson. Hearings on other subjects were conducted by videoconference in their entirety. Mike Davis, an ex-Senate lawyer who runs an outside group supporting Trump judicial nominees, noted that the Senate has confirmed 26 judges since May 19.

Though the hearings will proceed as planned, the Lee and Tillis diagnoses could complicate the timing of the committee vote, which will take place on or about Oct. 22. That meeting has an in-person attendance requirement, according to a committee rules expert, and it's not clear that the pair will be well enough to participate. The GOP has other options for proceeding if Lee or Tillis remain ill at that time. Republicans have a 12-10 majority on the panel.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, are opposed to any forward movement until the "full extent of potential exposure stemming from the president's infection" is understood.

"The unfortunate news about the infection of our colleague Senator Mike Lee makes even more clear that health and safety must guide the schedule for all Senate activities, including hearings," the pair said.

Barrett's confirmation hearings are slated to begin on Oct. 12—10 days from Friday—and a vote would follow about two weeks later. A confirmation vote is expected around the end of the month.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said that Barrett is tested daily for the coronavirus. Her last test, conducted Friday, was negative. Several news outlets reported that the judge had the virus earlier this year but recovered fully. The White House did not comment on those reports.

"She is following CDC guidance and best practices, including social distancing, wearing face coverings, and frequently washes hands," Deere said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) indicated that the hearing might proceed remotely even before Lee's diagnosis, citing the president's positive test.

"Members, some of them have done their interviews in previous hearings remotely," McConnell said Friday morning on Hugh Hewitt's radio program. "This sort of underscores the need to do that."

"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 mindset," McConnell added.

Update 10/3/20, 1:30 PM: This story has been updated to note that Senator Thom Tillis also tested positive for the virus, and to clarify that the committee vote, unlike the confirmation hearings, has an in-person attendance requirement.