The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday opened its four-day confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in what the panel's chairman predicted would be a "long contentious week," as Democrats denounced a Republican drive to approve her before the Nov. 3 U.S. election.
Democrats are firmly opposed to Barrett, whose confirmation would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority that could lead to rulings rolling back abortion rights, expanding religious and gun rights, and upholding Republican-backed voting restrictions, among other issues.
The hearing for Barrett, a conservative appellate court judge picked by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, started with senators making opening statements. Barrett herself will make her own opening statement after the 22 members of the committee are given a chance to speak, and will face questioning from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"This is going to be a long contentious week," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who chairs the committee, adding, "Let's make it respectful. Let's make it challenging. Let's remember, the world is watching."
Barrett sat at a table facing the senators wearing a black face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. Her husband and seven children sat behind her, also wearing protective masks.
Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett's confirmation seems almost certain, as Graham acknowledged.
"This is probably not about persuading each other, unless something really dramatic happens. All Republicans will vote yes and all Democrats will vote no," Graham said.
Graham acknowledged that Senate Republicans four years ago refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during an election year, and that no Supreme Court nominee has had a confirmation process so close to an election.
"I feel that we are doing this constitutionally," Graham said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, focused on an upcoming Supreme Court case in which Trump and other Republicans are urging the justices to strike down the Obamacare healthcare law, formally known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Feinstein noted that Barrett had criticized the court's 2012 ruling, authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, that upheld the law. Barrett could be on the court by the time the case is argued on Nov. 10.
"This well could mean that if Judge Barrett is confirmed, Americans stand to lose the benefits that the ACA provides," Feinstein said.
Democrats criticized the confirmation process going ahead so close to the election, with Senator Patrick Leahy saying that the integrity of the judiciary is at stake. Leahy condemned what he called the Republican "mad rush" to fill the vacancy on the eve of an election.
"They see the ability to take the courts from being independent to making them instead an arm of the far right and the Republican Party, with the potential to accomplish in courts what they have failed to accomplish by votes in the halls of Congress. And at the top of the hit list is the Affordable Care Act," Leahy said.
Repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare in Congress have fallen short, and Republicans have taken the effort to the courts in lawsuits like the one to be argued next month.
The hearing is a key step before a final full Senate vote by the end of October on her nomination for a lifetime job on the court.
As a result of health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, not all the senators will participate in person. Those present in the hearing room on Capitol Hill, which will include Barrett and her family, will be socially distanced and follow other guidelines.
But Republican Senator Mike Lee, who had tested positive this month for COVID-19, attended the hearing in person, arriving wearing a light-blue surgical mask. He took off the mask when he gave his opening statement.
Each senator has the final call on whether to attend in person. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's vice presidential running mate, is among those participating remotely.
The Senate's Republican leaders rejected Democratic pleas to delay the hearing after two Republican Judiciary Committee members and Trump himself tested positive for the coronavirus in the days following the Sept. 26 White House event at which the president announced Barrett as the nominee.
Barrett is expected to tell senators that as a judge she seeks to "reach the result required by the law, whatever my own preferences might be," according to a copy of her prepared remarks released on Sunday.
Democrats have called on Barrett to recuse herself from the Obamacare case, saying she would have a conflict of interest because Trump has called for the law to be struck down.
Barrett is a devout Catholic who has expressed opposition to abortion. Christian conservative activists long have hoped for the court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
© 2021 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.