U.S. Senate Republicans' timeline to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been thrown into disarray by the coronavirus.
Republicans already had a narrow margin of error to hold confirmation hearings and move to a full Senate floor vote on Barrett before Election Day on November 3. But that plan appears increasingly unlikely with the announcement that three U.S. senators — including two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will need to confirm Barrett to advance her nomination — tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.
Two other Republican members of the committee — Senators Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse — are quarantining because of exposure to the virus.
Those Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans appear to have been exposed to the virus in the cluster of cases that also infected U.S. President Donald Trump and other top members of the administration. The cluster of cases may have come from the September 26 White House Rose Garden event for Trump's announcement of Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee.
Here's a look at where the timeline for Bennett's confirmation hearings stand a week before the anticipated October 12 start:
How are Senate Republicans responding?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced a change to the Senate schedule Saturday in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus on Capitol Hill. The Senate will now not hold any floor business until October 19, but Republicans continue to aim to start confirmation hearings for Barrett on October 12.
"The Senate floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair and historically supported confirmation process," McConnell said. "Since May, the Judiciary Committee has operated flawlessly through a hybrid method that has seen some Senators appear physically at its hearings while other members have participated virtually."
The Senate Judiciary Committee has held 21 hybrid hearings — a mix of in-person and virtual — since the pandemic began in earlier this year.
But McConnell cannot afford to lose even one more of the 51 Senate Republicans to illness or quarantine in order to confirm Barrett since Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have already announced they would not vote to confirm a nominee before Election Day. As it is, those senators infected or quarantining have already said they would return to Washington before the CDC recommended 14-day quarantine period has ended.
In a Saturday interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, McConnell said the coronavirus is the "biggest enemy" to moving the Barrett nomination to a vote before Election Day.
"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 told Hewitt.
How are Senate Democrats responding?
The recent infection of three Republican senators has renewed the debate over safety procedures in the U.S. Capitol. While Congressional Republicans have held their caucus meetings in person throughout the course of the pandemic, Democrats continue to meet virtually.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday the plan to continue with the confirmation process highlighted Republicans' disregard for safety protocols.
"The Republican leadership has truly lost touch with reality if it's contemplating marching COVID-stricken members to the Senate to rush through a Supreme Court nominee who could strip health care from 20 million Americans. Instead of engaging in continuously more absurd and dangerous behavior, Chairman Graham should halt this already illegitimate nomination process," Schumer said in a statement.
At the same time, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats have also protested the plan to hold the Supreme Court confirmation process virtually, writing Saturday in a letter to Chairman Lindsey Graham, "Holding a remote hearing for a Supreme Court nomination is not an adequate substitute. As Republican members of this Committee have recognized, questioning nominees by video is ineffective and ignores the gravity of our constitutional duty to provide advice and consent on lifetime appointments, particularly those to the nation's highest court."
Democrats' best chance to block the Barrett confirmation will occur with procedural maneuvers on the Senate floor, after the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on her nomination. As of now, that committee vote is still planned for October 22. Republicans' original plan would have the nomination ready for a full Senate floor vote the week of October 26.
How has the U.S. Congress previously responded to protecting members from the coronavirus?
Earlier this year, the Republican-majority U.S. Senate and the Democratic-majority U.S. House diverged in their response to the virus. Led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lawmakers in that chamber passed the first-ever rules for proxy voting and switched over to holding committee hearings virtually. After a break in April, the U.S. Senate returned to in-person work. Both McConnell and Pelosi declined a White House offer for testing. To date, there is no COVID-19 testing or tracing regimen on Capitol Hill.
Pelosi did institute a mask mandate for the House side of the Capitol in late July, when Rep. Louie Gohmert — who had refused to wear a mask — tested positive for coronavirus.
According to GovTrack, 72 members of Congress in total have tested positive for COVID-19, been quarantined or come into contact with someone who has the virus.
U.S. lawmakers fly into Washington from all parts of the country, work a three- to four-day week on Capitol Hill and then fly back to their home districts — a situation that is ideal for facilitating the spread of the virus.
"400-500+ members of Congress regularly travel from every corner of the country to DC & back. Each time we convene carries with it the potential of a super spreader event. It's absolutely unacceptable that there is no regular temp-taking, testing, or contact tracing protocol," Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted over the weekend.
The U.S. House is currently out of session for the month of October while lawmakers' campaign in their home districts.