WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Democratic senators on Monday painted President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a threat to the Obamacare health care law and denounced the Republican drive to approve her before the Nov. 3 U.S. election as the Senate Judiciary Committee began her four-day confirmation hearing.
While they have little hope of derailing her nomination in the Republican-led Senate, Democrats pressed their opposition 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 voting restrictions, among other issues.
It was the fate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage, that was the focus of the Democrats. Barrett has criticized a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld Obamacare.
Barrett, a conservative appellate court judge picked by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sat at a table facing the senators wearing a black face mask amid a coronavirus pandemic that has killed roughly 215,000 Americans. Her husband and seven children sat behind her, also wearing protective masks.
“It’s beyond ironic that this administration, which has failed to respond to this pandemic, is rushing through a judge they believe will vote to strip away health protections,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said.
Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time to participate in a case due to be argued on Nov. 10 in which Trump, running for re-election against Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and other Republicans are seeking to invalidate Obamacare.
“This well could mean that if Judge Barrett is confirmed, Americans stand to lose the benefits that the ACA provides,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee.
The hearing started with senators making opening statements. Barrett will make her own opening statement later on Monday and will face questioning from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on her confirmation to a lifetime job on the court. Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett’s confirmation seems almost certain.
A key Obamacare provision that would be thrown out if the court strikes it down bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. In the hearing room, Democrats displayed pictures of patients who could lose their healthcare if Obamacare is struck down, with senators recounting their individual stories.
Repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare in Congress have fallen short, and Republicans have taken the effort to the courts.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the Democratic focus on healthcare and other policy issues showed they were not contesting Barrett’s qualifications to serve as a justice.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who chairs the committee, opened the hearing by saying it would be “a long contentious week.”
“Let’s make it respectful. Let’s make it challenging. Let’s remember, the world is watching,” Graham added.
“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.
Democrats criticized the confirmation process proceeding so close to the election, with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., saying that the integrity of the judiciary is at stake. Leahy condemned the Republican “mad rush” to fill the vacancy.
“They see the ability to take the courts from being independent to making them instead of 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.
Graham acknowledged that Senate Republicans four years earlier refused to act on Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy because it was an election year, and that no Supreme Court nominee had a confirmation process so close to an election.
“I feel that we are doing this constitutionally,” Graham added.
Due to health concerns amid the pandemic, some senators participated remotely. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, attended in person nine days after revealing he had tested positive for the coronavirus, arriving wearing a light-blue surgical mask. He took off the mask when he gave his opening statement, which prompted criticism online and led to Lee releasing a statement from his doctor clearing him to end self-isolation.
Many of you have expressed concern about my health status. Please do read this letter from the Attending Physician. https://t.co/YGxrkPti2V
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 12, 2020
Lee defended Barrett in his remarks, asserting that the Supreme Court is the best court in the world and that Barrett is qualified for a seat on it. He also noted that both he and Barrett have clerked for Supreme Court judges and respect the office.
Lee argued that the court is apolitical and condemned his colleagues for insinuating a Supreme Court decision is legislative or policy-oriented, arguing that the vast majority of Supreme Court cases are not political and most decisions see consensus between at least seven justices. He also told Barrett he would object to any person who attempted to attribute a legislative or policy stance to her rather than focus on her qualifications as a judge.
Democratic Sen. 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 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.
Republicans sought to portray the Democrats as attacking Barrett on religious grounds, though the Democrats have steered clear of doing so throughout the confirmation process.
Speaking to reporters in Delaware, Biden said Barrett’s Catholic faith should not be considered as the Senate considers her confirmation. Biden was the first Catholic U.S. vice president.
“This nominee said she wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. The president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball.”
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)