WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats argued Friday it was “premature” to move forward with confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as two members of the committee that will hold the proceedings tested positive for COVID-19.
Both Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tested positive for COVID-19, days after meeting in-person with Barrett, sparking worries from Democrats about the safety of the hearings.
Despite the concerns, Senate Republican leaders say they want to move ahead with confirmation hearings for Barrett, which are slated to begin Oct. 12. Both Lee and Tillis are members of the 22-member Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold the hearings and ultimately decide whether his confirmation will move forward for a vote in the full Senate.
In the past 24 hours, a flurry of officials have tested positive for COVID-19 in the aftermath of President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and White House adviser Hope Hicks testing positive for COVID-19. Members of Congress and even presidential candidate Joe Biden rushed to be tested in the aftermath of their diagnoses, finding the disease had spread to nearly 12 people thus far.
“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,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he spoke to Lee earlier Friday and “wished him a speedy recovery.”
On Twitter Friday evening, Graham rebuffed Democratic calls to postpone the hearings and said things will go on as planned on Oct. 12, noting he was also tested for COVID-19 and found to be negative. He added that “any Senator who wants to participate virtually will be allowed to do so.”
But just hours after the tweets, another member of his panel also tested positive.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been routinely tested for COVID-19, including testing negative last Saturday, but tonight my rapid antigen test came back positive,” Tillis said in a statement Friday evening. “I will be following the recommendations of my doctor and will be self-isolating at home for 10 days and notifying those I’ve been in close contact with. Thankfully, I have no symptoms and I feel well.”
Like Tillis, Sen. Lee said he also plans to self-isolate for 10 days. He said in a statement Friday afternoon
Lee announced in a statement released Friday morning he received a positive COVID-19 test after “experiencing symptoms consistent with longtime allergies” on Thursday. He said he would self-isolate but assured Republican Senate leaders he would be “back to work in time” to advance Barrett’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, which has final say on a nominee’s confirmation.
Lee met with Barrett on Tuesday and Tillis met with her on Wednesday. They both took part in a Wednesday Judiciary Committee hearing with former FBI Director James Comey, pressing him on his handling of the Russia inquiry.
Both also took part in Wednesday’s lunch meeting of Republican senators.
Tillis also attended an in-person debate in North Carolina Thursday evening, where he faced off with former North Carolina State Sen. Cal Cunningham, a Democrat. Cunningham said on Twitter he wished Tillis a “quick recovery” and would also get tested himself.
Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, Democrats have sought to delay the confirmation process for the Supreme Court seat, citing the proximity to the Nov. 3 election. Democrats hope Joe Biden defeats Trump on Election Day and that Democrats win back the Senate, which would give Democrats control of picking and confirming justices.
But a majority of senators previously supported moving the nomination forward to fill the seat before the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., explained last month that the Senate had plenty of time to get Barrett confirmed before Election Day.
Save for a few delay tactics, the GOP majority in the Senate left Democrats unable to stop Barrett from being confirmed. Then came Friday’s news that Trump and Lee tested positive.
“It’s critical that Chairman Graham put the health of senators, the nominee and staff first – and ensure a full and fair hearing that is not rushed, not truncated, and not virtual. Otherwise this already illegitimate process will become a dangerous one,” Schumer and Feinstein wrote Friday.
McConnell told reporters at a news conference Friday in Kentucky the Senate would continue to push forward with Barrett’s nomination, and added there were no plans to alter how the Senate operates, including when it came to widespread testing.
“We’ve been operating in the same environment now since the first of May, and we’ve been able to do Senate business. There’s no reason why we can’t continue to do that,” he said. “The disease has not kept us from operating as we would normally, and there’s no reason to expect that to be the case in the foreseeable future.”
McConnell added that the news had not shifted the timeline for a full Senate vote to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court. “I’m planning on moving to the nomination as soon as it comes out of committee,” he said. Graham has already said that date could be as early as Oct. 26.
McConnell refused multiple times to say whether he’d been tested for COVID-19 in light of Trump’s diagnosis. The Kentucky Republican repeatedly said, “we’re following the CDC guidelines.”
Unlike the White House, Congress does not have a standardized COVID-19 testing program but on Friday, the Capitol’s top doctor announced a new COVID-19 testing strategy that allows more flexibility for lawmakers and staff to receive a test.
The Office of Attending Physician Brian Monahan announced that his office was providing tests to lawmakers and staff who “have symptoms suggestive of coronavirus or who are concerned they may have been exposed to a known positive Covid 19 patient.”
The new guidance, while allowing for more testing on Capitol Hill by those who request it, does not mandate tests for those who visit the Capitol — a policy that the White House has instituted.
The White House offered rapid-testing machines to lawmakers earlier this year, but Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined the offer in May, saying the testing equipment could be better used elsewhere.
For months, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about the lack of testing in the Capitol. Those worries were renewed Friday after Trump’s diagnosis.
“I don’t understand why the Speaker would continue to not have testing,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., not often one to agree with McCarthy, concurred on the need for testing.
She told reporters Friday it might not be a bad idea to mandate testing, adding there was a possibility of a “super spreader” event with all members of Congress flying in from districts around the country and congregating at the Capitol.
“I think it is incredibly important that we would be tested, ” she said.
Contributing: Christal Hayes