US Republicans Advance Barrett's Supreme Court Nomination Over Democratic Boycott

The Senate Judiciary Committee vote to approve President Donald Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, with majority Republicans pushing past a Democratic boycott and the panel's rules to recommend her confirmation

By Nicholas Fandos
Published: Oct 23, 2020

bg_nyt 2_gettyimages-1229204106Image: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images​

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Thursday to approve President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, with majority Republicans pushing past a Democratic boycott and the panel’s rules to recommend her confirmation.

The lopsided 12-0 tally set the stage for a consequential vote to confirm Barrett on Monday, a month to the day after the president announced her nomination to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It reflected the deep partisan polarization gripping the Senate as Republicans rush to cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the court and score a coveted achievement eight days before the election.

“This is why we all run,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the committee, exulted just before pushing through her nomination. “It’s moments like this that make everything you go through matter.”

The all-but-certain confirmation of Barrett, 48, an appeals court judge who has styled herself in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia, will most likely shape American society for decades to come. It has potentially sweeping implications for corporate power and the environment, abortion rights and gay rights, and a wide range of other policy issues, including health care access, gun rights and religious freedom.

Democrats, livid over the speedy process, spurned the vote altogether and forced Republicans to bypass their own long-standing committee rules requiring at least two members of the minority to be present to transact business.

“Democrats will not lend a single ounce of legitimacy to this sham vote in the Judiciary Committee,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, where he raised his voice to be heard over the cries of protesters opposed to the nomination.

“We are voting with our feet,” Schumer said. “We are standing together. And we are standing against this mad rush to jam through a Supreme Court nomination just days — days — before an election.”

The boycott, and the majority-only vote to recommend the nomination, marked a new precedent for Supreme Court confirmation proceedings, which have steadily grown more bitter and more partisan in recent decades. It foreshadowed even more brutal battles to come over the fate of the Senate and the judiciary itself.

Even as the panel prepared to meet, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, pledged that if elected, he would establish a bipartisan commission to study whether to expand or otherwise restructure the courts. The issue is a top priority of liberal activists who have been outraged by Republicans’ drive to stack the judiciary with conservatives.

The maneuver by Senate Democrats on Thursday kicked off a weekend-long barrage of dilatory tactics that they were planning to stir up liberal outrage over Barrett’s nomination in the final days of the 2020 balloting. Without the votes to block the judge in either the committee or the full Senate, though, Democrats’ actions were purely symbolic.

Democrats have sharply opposed Barrett on policy grounds. But their goal on Thursday was to tarnish the legitimacy of her confirmation, arguing that Republicans had no right to fill the seat vacated just over a month ago by the death of Ginsburg, when millions of Americans were already voting.

They were particularly angry that Republicans had reversed themselves since 2016, when they refused to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, citing the election about eight months later.

Inside the hearing room where the vote unfolded, Democrats’ empty chairs held large posters of Americans whose health care coverage they insisted could evaporate if Trump’s nominee were to side with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act when the court hears a Republican challenge to the law next month.

Republicans proceeded anyway with little hesitation, even though it meant ignoring Judiciary Committee rules. Graham decided that broader Senate rules that require only a simple majority of all committee members be present were sufficient, and Republicans cited past examples where Democrats had acted similarly, though never for a Supreme Court nominee.

“I regret that we could not do it the normal way,” Graham said, “but what I don’t regret is reporting her out of committee.”

If anything, Democrats’ absence after a week of heated sparring during Barrett’s confirmation hearings made the proceeding on Thursday quieter and faster than it otherwise would have been. It took only 12 minutes after the committee gaveled into session in a cavernous Senate hearing room — with senators and staff seated far apart as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus — to complete the vote.

Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ boycott as a childish stunt.

“This is all for show,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “This is to try to capture a narrative which is simply false and to cover up what they are really about.”

Cornyn and other Republicans said the public should be wary of what they asserted was Democrats’ real intention: to expand the size of the Supreme Court and stock it with liberal justices if they reclaim the White House and the Senate majority.

It is far from clear whether Democrats could accomplish such a politically costly task, or if party leaders agree with progressives that they even ought to try. Biden’s promise of a commission, after weeks of dodging questions on the topic, suggested that he would try to bide his time.

“I will ask them to, over 180 days, come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it’s getting out of whack,” Biden, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, according to an interview excerpt that is scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on “60 Minutes.”

For both sides, the stakes were remarkably high. Republicans regarded the chance to install Trump’s third Supreme Court justice as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of his presidency. And they hoped the elevation of Barrett would galvanize conservative voters before the election.

“She was arguably the most impressive judicial nominee I’ve ever seen in these hearings, and I have been watching them intently since I was a kid,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

He boasted that Democrats had “failed to lay a glove on Judge Barrett” in her confirmation hearings and argued that contrary to their claims, she would help depoliticize a court that liberals have tried to commandeer to further their policy agenda.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, has indicated that after the committee’s action, the full Senate would proceed on Friday to bring up Barrett’s nomination, with a final vote on Monday.

That vote, too, is expected to fall mostly on party lines. At least one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, has said she will join Democrats in opposition. She could be joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a proponent of abortion rights, who was opposed to filling the seat so close to the election.

“I’ve shared for awhile that I didn’t think we should be taking this up until after the election, and I haven’t changed,” Murkowski said on Thursday.

But one by one, the small cadre of moderate Republicans who occasionally break with their party have announced their intention to vote for Barrett. They have maintained that comparisons to 2016 are unfair because then, unlike now, the White House and Senate were controlled by opposing parties.

Graham, in his extended remarks on Thursday, lamented the state of partisan acrimony around the courts. But he insisted Democrats deserved most of the blame for the tit-for-tat erosion of norms around the confirmation process because they changed Senate rules in 2013 to lower the threshold of votes needed to confirm federal judges to a simple majority.

“I remember telling Senator Schumer, ‘You will regret this,’” Graham said, describing a 2013 call with the New York Democrat. “Today, he will regret it.”

He added, “They started this, not me.”

Yet he also conceded that Republicans had responded in kind, changing the rules again in 2017 to eliminate the minority’s ability to block a Supreme Court justice.

The boycott on Thursday was arguably their most drastic step yet, but Democrats have repeatedly tried to fluster Republicans and show liberals they were doing all they could to fight Barrett’s confirmation. Schumer tried repeatedly this week to shut down the Senate chamber altogether until after the election, forcing Republicans to undergo lengthy roll call votes to block him.

“They are turning that institution into a pantomime court that goes through the motions of adjudication, but delivers the goods for the donors,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said of Republicans. Pointing toward the Supreme Court across from the Capitol, he added, “This ain’t over.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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