• Sun. Apr 11th, 2021


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Republicans Close In on Barrett Confirmation to Supreme Court

Senate Republicans plowed ahead with unusual speed on Thursday to fulfill their promise to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, blowing past Democratic objections to cement a 6-to-3 conservative majority before the November election.

In a partisan clash, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, forced through a motion to schedule the panel’s vote on Judge Barrett’s nomination for Oct. 22. That would be just over a month after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death created the vacancy and less than two weeks before Election Day.

In doing so, he conceded that President Trump was in danger of losing the White House, underscoring the political stakes of the fight and its potential consequences for the president and his party’s hopes of keeping control of the Senate.

Speaking in Kentucky, where he had just cast his own ballot, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, left little doubt about what would happen next. The full Senate, he told reporters, would begin considering Judge Barrett’s confirmation on Oct. 23.

“We have the votes,” he said flatly.

In the hearing room where the Judiciary Committee spent more than 20 tense hours with Judge Barrett this week, outraged Democrats used some of their last remaining procedural levers to try to slow Republicans’ progress — while warning the majority party of dire consequences for what they called an illegitimate process. They briefly denied the committee the quorum it needed to conduct business and forced a vote to postpone the proceedings.

Republicans overcame both setbacks, ignoring the quorum requirement and easily defeating the request for a delay. Democrats conceded they had no real power to block the ascension of Judge Barrett, a 48-year-old appeals court judge and Notre Dame law professor.

“I recognize, Mr. Chairman, that this goose is pretty much cooked,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey.

With a vote locked in place, Republicans appeared to have few — if any — remaining hurdles before them in a history-making dash to achieve a long-sought conservative-leaning court that could reconsider landmark rulings on abortion, gay rights, corporate power and the Affordable Care Act. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, one of only a handful of Republicans who had left his support in doubt, confirmed he would be a “yes” on Thursday.

No Supreme Court confirmation has occurred as close to an election as the one scheduled for Judge Barrett. In this case, millions of Americans have already cast their ballots.

Democrats cited that fact frequently as they forced a raw and unusually substantive debate among Judiciary Committee members over the state of Washington’s judicial wars, and of the Senate itself. While the questioning of Judge Barrett this week was marked by general civility and respect for the nominee, senators amped up their attacks on each other on Thursday.

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Democrats accused Republicans of a hypocritical power grab by rushing to fill a seat so close to an election, after refusing to do so in 2016, when Democrats put forward a nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick B. Garland, nine months before the balloting.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

“The time has come to be honest about what is going on here,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota. “You are just trying to ram through this justice — against your own words, in light of everything this president has said, where he won’t even commit to a peaceful transition to power. That is the world we are in right now.”

Urging them to reverse course, Democrats warned that Republicans were setting a dangerous new precedent in an ever-escalating judicial war that could irrevocably erode the legitimacy of the Senate and of the courts.

“This process is a caricature of illegitimacy,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and a former chairman of the committee. “The fact that we had a nominee before Justice Ginsburg was even buried — in order to jam this nomination through before the election — will forever mark this process as the callous, political power grab that it is.”

Republicans countered that they had every right to proceed. Unlike in 2016, when President Barack Obama was not standing for re-election and the Senate was controlled by a different party, Mr. Trump is on the ballot and his party controls the Senate. Besides, they said, Democrats would do the same if the situation was reversed.

“I recognize our Democratic friends wish there was a Democratic majority in the Senate, but the voters decided otherwise,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. “So this committee moving forward is consistent with over 200 years of history.”

They also resurrected an earlier stage in the fight, blaming Democrats for supercharging the tit-for-tat escalation when they forced a change in Senate rules in 2013, lowering the threshold of votes needed to confirm federal judges to a simple majority.

Mr. Graham, who let the debate play out for almost two hours on Thursday, conceded that his own past statements pledging not to fill a vacancy under the present scenario were fair game for Democrats. But he said his view was that voters elected a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Senate and expected them to put in place conservative judges.

The shoe, he noted, could soon be on the other foot.

“You all have a good chance of winning the White House,” Mr. Graham told the Democrats on the committee. The concession, from one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal defenders who is himself facing an unexpectedly tough re-election challenge, turned some heads.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

“Thank you for acknowledging that,” Ms. Klobuchar interjected.

“I think it’s true,” Mr. Graham replied.

But it did little to placate Democrats’ broader concerns that Republicans were chipping away at principles that once defined the Senate but have eroded in recent years: restraint, honesty and a considered exercise of power.

“The rule of ‘because we can,’ which is the rule being applied today, is one that leads away from a lot of the traditions and comity and values that the Senate has long embodied,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island.

But Mr. Whitehouse went on to put down a marker Democrats could well cite if they retake the majority, like eliminating the legislative filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court.

“Don’t think when you have established the rule of ‘because we can,’ that should the shoe be on the other foot, you will have any credibility to come to us and say, ‘Yeah, I know you can do that, but you shouldn’t,’” he said. “Your credibility to make that argument at any time in the future will die in this room and on that Senate floor if you continue to proceed in this way.”

There was potential fallout for Democrats, too. After the hearing concluded, Demand Justice, a progressive group active in judicial fights, called for the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, to step aside.

Progressives have long been wary of the genteel Ms. Feinstein, who at 87 has become noticeably slower, and some of her colleagues worried in advance that she would not be up to the task of leading Democrats through a bruising confirmation fight.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The proceedings this week only intensified the criticism of Ms. Feinstein, whose questioning of Judge Barrett meandered and who expressed little anger at Republicans’ rush to confirm her. Ms. Feinstein concluded the hearings on Thursday by embracing Mr. Graham and thanking him for what she called “one of the best set of hearings I’ve participated in.”

“She has undercut Democrats’ position at every step of this process, from undermining calls for filibuster and court reform straight through to thanking Republicans for the most egregious partisan power grab in the modern history of the Supreme Court,” said Brian Fallon, Demand Justice’s executive director. Democrats, he added, should not be led by someone who treats “the Republican theft of a Supreme Court seat with kid gloves.”

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.