Virus spreads on panel handling Supreme Court nomination

WASHINGTON (AP) Two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the United States (US) have tested positive for the coronavirus, raising questions about the timing of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett and whether additional senators may have been exposed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared the confirmation process was going “full steam ahead.”

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and Utah Senator Mike Lee both said on Friday that they had tested positive for the virus. Both had attended a ceremony for Barrett at the White House on September 25 with President Donald Trump, who announced on Friday that he had tested positive and was later hospitalised at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Lee, who did not wear a mask at the White House event, said he had “symptoms consistent with longtime allergies.” Tillis, who did wear a mask during the public portion of the event, said he had “mild symptoms.” Both said they would quarantine for 10 days – ending just before Barrett’s confirmation hearings begin on Oct. 12.

The positive tests come as Senate Republicans are pushing to quickly confirm Barrett in the few weeks they have before the November 3 election. There is little cushion in the schedule set out by Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and McConnell, who want to put a third Trump nominee on the court immediately in case they lose any of their power in the election.

Democrats, many of whom have been critical of Barrett, seized on the virus announcements to call for a delay in the hearings.

Senator Thom Tillis meets with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, US President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, at the US Capitol in Washington. PHOTO: AP

“We now have two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who have tested positive for COVID, and there may be more,” tweeted Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. “I wish my colleagues well. It is irresponsible and dangerous to move forward with a hearing, and there is absolutely no good reason to do so.”

Several other members of the Judiciary panel attended the White House ceremony, including Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. Blackburn said she tested negative after the event. Crapo said he “recently” had a negative test and a spokeswoman said he would be getting another one as soon as it could be arranged. A spokeswoman for Hawley said he was tested on Saturday, and the senator tweeted later that his coronavirus test came back negative.

Sasse tested negative, but said in a statement that he would work remotely from his home state and undergo further testing due to his “close interaction with multiple infected individuals,” his office said. He said he planned to to return to Washington in time for the confirmation hearing.

Graham was not at the White House on Saturday but sees Trump frequently. He said on Friday that he had taken a test after interacting with Lee and it was negative. A spokeswoman for another GOP member of the committee, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said on Saturday that he had also interacted with Lee and had also tested negative. Still, Cruz’s office said he is remaining at home until the hearings out of an abundance of caution.

Confirmation hearings for Barrett, who would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are scheduled to last for four days. McConnell on Saturday announced that he would seek to delay floor action for the next two weeks but that the hearings would proceed. At an event in Kentucky on Friday, he said he thought remote hearings could work if some senators couldn’t attend.

Graham also suggested the possibility of remote hearings, saying on Twitter that “any senator who wants to participate virtually will be allowed to do so.” In a statement on Saturday, Graham said there would be “no change” in the hearings even if Senate floor votes were delayed. It is not unusual for committees to meet when there is no action on the floor.

Senators cannot vote virtually, however, so Republicans would need a full slate of committee members to approve the nomination shortly after the hearings and all of their senators on the floor for a final confirmation vote, which they hope will happen the last week of October.