Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 case underscores that the coronavirus is the biggest threat to the confirmation of the current Supreme Court nominee.
Democrats procedurally can’t do anything to stop a confirmation vote on the Senate floor before the Nov. 3 presidential election, McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
But with a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and two Republicans already saying they opposed a confirmation vote for Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett so close to the election, McConnell has a thin margin for a vote.
“Our biggest enemy obviously is the coronavirus, keeping everybody healthy and well and in place to do our job,” McConnell said of the confirmation vote.
A few hours later, one of those Republican votes, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a member of the Judiciary Committee, announced on Twitter that he tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.
Lee said he would isolate for 10 days but assured Republicans he would be back in time for Barrett’s confirmation votes in committee and on the floor.
Lee was in the White House Rose Garden, without a mask, on Saturday for Trump’s official announcement that Barrett would be the nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, and was seated near other Republican members of the Judiciary Committee: Mike Crapo of Idaho, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
Lee also met with Barrett on Tuesday and attended Thursday’s Judiciary Committee markup, where he appeared to be suffering from allergy-like symptoms.
Barrett has tested negative for COVID-19, a White House spokesman said Friday morning, adding that the Supreme Court nominee is tested daily.
McConnell suggested the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings, set to begin Oct. 12, could be done remotely, and said that some members have done their interviews and previous hearings remotely.
“This sort of underscores, I think, the need to do that, and 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 said.
McConnell said his plan is for the nomination to come out of the committee on Oct. 22, “and we will be voting on the nominee very soon. I haven’t picked an exact point to bring the nomination up but it’s front and center for the American people.”
Asked later Thursday about whether the Barrett votes will be before the election, McConnell did not quite answer.
"I'm planning on moving to the nomination as soon as it comes out of committee," McConnell said.
A spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the committee hearing would move forward as planned.
That drew a rebuke from Demand Justice, a liberal advocacy group that had already objected to the speed and timing of a Barrett confirmation hearing.
“An already illegitimate process becomes even more reckless,” Brian Fallon, the group’s executive director, tweeted.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, cited the Lee test as reason to delay the confirmation hearings for Barrett and said virtual hearings would not be acceptable.
“It is premature for Chairman Graham to commit to a hearing schedule when we do not know the full extent of potential exposure stemming from the president’s infection and before the White House puts in place a contact tracing plan to prevent further spread of the disease,” Schumer and Feinstein said in a news release.
“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 Democrats said. “In addition, there is bipartisan agreement that a virtual confirmation hearing for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench is not an acceptable substitute.”
McConnell tweeted Friday morning that he spoke to Trump about the Barrett nomination.
“He’s in good spirits and we talked business — especially how impressed Senators are with the qualifications of Judge Barrett,” McConnell said. “Full steam ahead with the fair, thorough, timely process that the nominee, the Court, & the country deserve.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.