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Graham, Harris share spotlight as Barrett hearings begin

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are vowing a quick confirmation for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, as the party — undeterred by coronavirus infections or other distractions — rushes to put conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the high court before the Nov. 3 election.

The process starts Monday with hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings are likely to be a hybrid of in-person questioning and some participation via video after three GOP senators — including two on the committee — contracted the virus.

The GOP-led panel has held more than 20 hearings during the pandemic as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues his drive to confirm conservative judges. The hearings have all had a combination of in-person and remote questioning.

Some outside groups have pushed for Democratic senators to boycott the Barrett hearings to protest the accelerated confirmation process and remind voters of Republicans' refusal to consider President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee in 2016, but those pleas were ignored. Still, some Democrats have refused to meet with Barrett and the hearings are likely to be contentious, although not as explosive as hearings two years ago to consider Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed.

Unable to block Trump’s pick on their own, Democrats argue that Barrett’s confirmation would threaten protections of the Affordable Care Act — a focus that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has embraced and many Democrats see as a winning message. The court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of Obama’s health care law just after the election, adding to the urgency of the issue.

Conservative groups have been pushing hard for Barrett's confirmation and are expected to spend more than $10 million to drum up support for her and pressure senators to swiftly confirm Trump's third Supreme Court nominee.

Senators to watch as the four-day hearings kick off at the Capitol complex:

SENATE JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.

At the helm of a process that will include days of televised hearings, Graham will be in the national spotlight, a position he has said may benefit his own political standing. Graham is locked in a tight race for reelection against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison that has featured record-breaking fundraising and accusations of hypocrisy.

Graham said four years ago that a judicial nominee should not be approved just before a presidential election, adding that voters should “use my words against me” if he changed his mind. "How good is your word?” Harrison asked at a debate last week.

Graham said Barrett “is going to be confirmed because the president has the constitutional authority to do it.”

He called Barrett a “buffer to liberalism” and said he hoped she “won’t be treated like Kavanaugh.” Graham’s fiery 2018 defense of Kavanaugh helped cement the senator's close relationship with Trump and generated renewed support from conservatives. Graham's actions also riled up liberals, who are now pouring millions of dollars into Harrison’s campaign and working to oust the GOP senator.

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SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.

As top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, the veteran Feinstein will lead questioning of Barrett, although she may cede the spotlight to fellow California Sen. Kamala Harris, a committee member and the party's vice presidential nominee.

At 87, Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator, and some Democrats worry she may have lost some of her effectiveness as a questioner. Feinstein still faces criticism for her comments during Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing to be a federal judge. Feinstein had joined Republicans on the panel in asking Barrett about her Roman Catholic faith, but then went further by telling Barrett, then a Notre Dame law professor, that “when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.''

Republicans have seized on Feinstein's question to accuse Democrats of criticizing Barrett's faith — a charge Democrats vigorously deny.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there’s no “religious litmus test” for a judge, nor any truth to the idea that Democrats oppose judicial candidates because of their religion. “Not a single Democrat will make these attacks or make personal, religious beliefs an issue,'' Schumer said.

Feinstein led Democrats in calling on Barrett to provide any missing materials from a questionnaire she completed for her confirmation. Barrett signed a 2006 newspaper ad sponsored by an anti-abortion group in which she said she opposed “abortion on demand” and defended “the right to life from fertilization to the end of natural life.”

The ad was not included in materials Barrett provided to the Judiciary panel. Feinstein and other Democrats asked the Justice Department to explain the omission and confirm whether other materials were left out.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS, D-CALIF.

Harris, Joe Biden's running mate in the presidential election, will again be in the spotlight as Democrats question a Trump nominee for the Supreme Court. Harris, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, earned high marks from Democrats for her aggressive questioning of Kavanaugh in 2018. Those hearings, at which Harris played a starring role, drew more than 20 million viewers.

Harris plans to participate remotely from her Senate office due to coronavirus concerns, her spokesman said Sunday. Harris and other key Democrats said the hearings should not move forward without plans to test people attending, including senators, for coronavirus.

Successful questioning of Barrett could boost the Biden-Harris ticket, but missteps could risk harming Democrats' chances of winning an election they now lead in national polls. “I think there’s probably more pressure on Kamala to actually engage ... in a political way than ever before just because of the fact that she’s on the ticket" with Biden, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said.

In a sign of the heightened scrutiny, Vice President Mike Pence tried to get Harris to reveal whether she and Biden support expanding the Supreme Court, as many liberals advocate. Harris dodged the question at their debate, focusing instead on Republicans’ decision to move forward to fill the current vacancy so close to an election.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY, R-MO.

Hawley, a conservative and outspoken critic of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision upholding abortion rights, has led GOP efforts to warn Democrats to refrain from criticizing Barrett on the basis of her Catholicism.

Hawley specifically cited Feinstein's comments about Barrett’s faith during her 2017 nomination hearing for a Chicago-based appeals court post.

“I call on you and every member of the Democratic caucus to publicly reject Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s egregious personal attacks on Judge Barrett’s Christian faith during her previous confirmation hearings, and to pledge you will abstain from that kind of anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-faith vitriol in the hearings to come,” Hawley wrote in a letter to Schumer last month. “You owe it to the country.''

Democrats call Hawley's comments off-base. No Democrat has criticized Barrett's religion since her nomination was announced late last month.

SEN. CHRIS COONS, D-DEL.

A longtime Biden loyalist who holds the Democratic presidential nominee's former Senate seat, Coons was among the first Democrats on the Judiciary panel to meet with Barrett, although he did so by phone because of the pandemic.

Coons said he would attend the hearings in person, although other members with health concerns will likely ask questions over video. The remote aspect “increases the likelihood that we’re sort of speaking past each other,” Coons said, and is a key reason "we should not be racing ahead with this partisan process.''

Coons told MSNBC that he has been reading Barrett's opinions and law articles, "and I’m increasingly convinced that she’s even more conservative than (former) Justice (Antonin) Scalia, for whom she clerked on the Supreme Court, and she has demonstrated a willingness to reverse long-settled precedent.''

Voters should remember that Trump has said the reason he is "pressing for her to be seated before the election was so that she could participate in decisions about the election, if it is closely contested, and so she could help overturn the Affordable Care Act,'' Coons said.

“A vote for Judge Barrett is a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act,'' he said. ”That’s what I’ll be trying to lay bare in the upcoming hearings.''

SENS. MIKE LEE, R-UTAH, AND THOM TILLIS, R-N.C.

Lee and Tillis both contracted the novel coronavirus and are in self-quarantine as the hearings approach. Both attended a Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony in Barrett's honor that seems to have been a major spreader of the virus.

Tillis said he expects to participate in at least some of the confirmation hearings remotely but believes he will be cleared to return to the Capitol in person for an expected Oct. 22 committee vote on her nomination.

Tillis, like Graham, is in a tight reelection race and pledged to support Trump's nominee even before Barrett's name was announced. He said he does not have symptoms and could join hearings in person later in the week. Democrats have warned that appearing in person could put other senators and staffers at risk. They are urging Graham to require COVID-19 testing of all senators.

Lee, a conservative who has praised Barrett, has said he expects to be "back to work in time to join my colleagues in advancing” her nomination.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO, D-HAWAII

Hirono, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, said she will focus on the health care law and possible consequences of a more conservative Supreme Court rolling back reproductive rights or overturning Roe v. Wade. In just three years on the 7th Circuit, Barrett has twice argued for approval of abortion restrictions that violated Supreme Court precedent, Hirono said.

“Amy Barrett has a history of anti-choice advocacy and a demonstrated lack of respect for precedent,'' Hirono said, adding that Barrett "is being pushed on to the Supreme Court just in time for the November 10th hearing on the Affordable Care Act, where she’ll be expected to be among those who strike the Affordable Care Act down. That leaves millions and millions of families totally in the cold in regard to health care.''