Courtesy calls in the time of COVID-19: No handshakes, no Sherpa

White House keeps tight crew, compressed time frame

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is greeted by Vice President Mike Pence, left, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone before being escorted to the Senate, where she will begin a series of meetings to prepare for her upcoming confirmation hearings, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is greeted by Vice President Mike Pence, left, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone before being escorted to the Senate, where she will begin a series of meetings to prepare for her upcoming confirmation hearings, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 29, 2020 at 6:56pm

Amy Coney Barrett’s Capitol Hill path to the Supreme Court began on Tuesday with courtesy calls unlike any previous high court nominee’s — sans handshakes, amid the homestretch of a heated presidential campaign, and without the traditional veteran politician who serves as a guide, or Sherpa, to the ways of the Senate.

Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had a full day of meetings with senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, President Pro Tempore Charles E. Grassley and other key Republicans ahead of her confirmation hearings.

The federal appeals court judge arrived at the Senate alongside Vice President Mike Pence, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, an entourage that embodied the administration’s commitment to getting a third justice confirmed during Trump’s first term.

The nominee and the vice president both donned masks as they reached the top of the East Front steps and entered the Capitol, but the masks were off by the time they were settled into the Senate’s Mansfield Room for brief remarks and a photo op. McConnell’s mask lay crumpled on the yellow upholstered chair behind him.

Pence said he looked forward to the Senate voting in the “near future” on Barrett’s confirmation.

“We truly do believe Judge Barrett represents the best of America,” Pence said of his fellow Hoosier.

McConnell declined to answer questions about whether the judge should recuse herself if legal challenges to the election between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden land at the high court.

The Kentucky Republican met with Barrett for a little under an hour, and Meadows told reporters it was “the start of a very long process, but went well.” He wouldn’t comment on what McConnell and Barrett talked about.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer previously said he wouldn’t meet with Barrett and explained his decision Tuesday on ABC’s “The View.”

“I don’t think meeting with her would change anything, and the process was so illegitimate that I don’t want to validate it,” the New York Democrat said of the truncated confirmation process, coming just as voters begin casting ballots.

Schumer said he still hopes enough GOP senators will vote “no” to block her confirmation, but acknowledged there is not much Democrats alone can do to stop it. “It’s an uphill fight; I don’t deny that,” he said.

Schumer and other Democrats have criticized GOP senators for their about-face from their 2016 position: that a Supreme Court nomination in a presidential election year should not get a vote until the voters have spoken.

That was the line of reasoning McConnell and others used to deny a hearing and votes to Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.

Particularly irksome for Democrats is that Republicans like Graham said they would respect that precedent, then flip-flopped after Ginsburg died on Sept. 18. McConnell says there is precedent for confirming a justice in such circumstances, and the Barrett situation is unique.

Meanwhile, Grassley, a former Judiciary chairman who wielded the gavel during the confirmations of Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, met with Barrett on Tuesday afternoon and noted to reporters that the two were already well acquainted.

“It’s not like she’s starting out brand new with me,” the Iowa Republican said, noting that he also chaired the committee during her 2017 circuit court confirmation process.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about her stellar qualifications,” he said, adding that “she’s also well known for mentoring women in the law,” much like Ginsburg.

There is little doubt how Grassley will vote, but as he did as Judiciary chairman, he said he is holding out a decision.

He said Barrett has a “good chance of getting my vote,” but qualified that he won’t officially decide until the main parts of the confirmation process is over.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune said watching Barrett go through her confirmation to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 gave him confidence in her.

“So we’re looking forward now to the processes before, and obviously she needs to go through a lot of meetings with individual senators this week and then get prepared for the hearings to come, but we think that the president made a great selection,” the South Dakota Republican told reporters.

Barrett’s courtesy calls didn’t look like those of other recent Supreme Court picks.

As nominees, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch and others made their courtesy calls at senators’ offices, zig-zagging between Senate office buildings and walking into each personalized office decked out with home state treasures and memorabilia.

Instead, Barrett has a home base in the Mansfield Room, just off of the Senate floor. Senators with appointments make their way to her, instead of the other way around. The change is a precaution due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho tweeted a photo of himself bumping elbows with the nominee, eschewing the traditional handshake for a safer greeting. But neither Crapo nor Barrett wore masks in the photo.

The meetings are designed more for breaking the ice and political theater than for persuading or vote wrangling. And that is especially true with Barrett, for whom there was already a public whip count showing a path to confirmation before she was even officially named as Trump’s pick.

Barrett was flanked by administration staffers throughout the day, but she does not have a singular seasoned guide with strong Senate ties to lead her through the dizzying and harsh environment of the confirmation process.

Previous nominees have benefited from the Washington version of a Sherpa. Gorsuch had former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte; Kavanaugh had former Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Sherpas are named for members of a Tibetan group who live on the slopes of the Himalayas in Nepal. They are known for their endurance at high elevations and often serve as skilled guides for foreign mountain climbers.

Kyl’s experienced hand led Kavanaugh through a rocky confirmation process. The former Arizona senator knew the confirmation process inside and out after sitting on the Judiciary Committee for the confirmation proceedings of four Supreme Court justices — John G. Roberts Jr., Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He retired from the Senate as the GOP whip, in charge of rounding up votes and keeping the caucus in line, a critical skill when collecting support for a nominee.

Kyl was by Kavanaugh’s side for each meeting with senators, glad-handing his former colleagues and making introductions.

Instead of a Sherpa, the Trump administration has put a tight-knit team of White House insiders to work shepherding Barrett.

Pence and Short are familiar presences in the Capitol, with Pence the official presiding officer of the Senate and Short a former head of legislative affairs for Trump. Cipollone was a constant in the Senate during the impeachment trial earlier this year that saw Trump’s acquittal, and Meadows, a veteran of the House, has increased his time in the Senate in his relatively new capacity as the president’s top aide.

The move drops the pretense of cordial hobnobbing ahead of confirmation hearings, where good old boys and girls parlay their Senate relationships into trust in and commitment to a nominee. Most senators have already spoken up about where they stand on the Barrett nomination, with some, such as Graham, declaring their support before the nominee was even announced. The White House wants McConnell to get to a vote with record-breaking speed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin Barrett’s confirmation hearings on Oct. 12. The hearings are expected to last four days. Over the weekend, Graham suggested that Barrett would be voted out of committee on Oct. 22, setting up a potential floor vote before Election Day.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.