Tough questioning ahead for Supreme Court nominee Barrett
President Donald Trump's US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett faces a sharply divided Senate Tuesday for her first question-and-answer session, with Republicans praising her faith and qualifications and Democrats set to bombard her over health care.
The acute political fights were previewed in Monday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where lawmakers and Barrett gave opening statements under the shadow of the deadly novel coronavirus.
With just 22 days before the November 3 election, Democrats slammed the process as "reckless" and a "sham" amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 215,000 Americans.
Four days of hearings are unlikely to sway senators, barring any shock revelations, and Democrats — who control 47 Senate seats versus the Republicans' 53 — are largely powerless to block Barrett's confirmation.
"I think I know how the vote's going to come out," Republican committee chairman Lindsey Graham said after gavelling in Monday's session.
Barrett, a 48-year-old conservative, was tapped last month by Trump to succeed liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of cancer on September 18.
Republicans revel in the prospect of Barrett joining the bench, where conservatives now occupy five of nine seats and her confirmation could cement the court's rightward tilt for decades.
Democrats, meanwhile, were using the hearings to remind voters that health care for millions is at stake and to convince them that Trump has been deeply irresponsible in his pandemic response.
They have painted Barrett as a direct threat to the Affordable Care Act and voiced concern her appointment is being rammed through in time for the court to hear a challenge to the law on November 10.
The hearing, forced onto the calendar even as 10 million Americans already cast ballots as of Monday, has emerged as a political flashpoint.
While Republicans praised Barrett as a competent nominee grounded in family values, Senate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse summarized his party's hostility to her confirmation, calling her a "judicial torpedo" fired at the health law that protects millions of Americans.
And Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris — speaking by videolink — slammed as "reckless" the decision to hold the hearing at all during a pandemic, with two Republican panelists among a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked to the White House.
"This Supreme Court nomination process is illegitimate and deliberately defies the will of the people," she added later on Twitter, highlighting Democratic arguments that voters should decide who gets to pick Ginsburg's replacement.
Senator Mike Lee appeared in person to deliver his remarks maskless, despite announcing his COVID-19 diagnosis 10 days earlier, prompting some to highlight the health dangers for the committee members.
Lee's fellow Republican who tested positive, Thom Tillis, appeared remotely.
Graham shrugged off calls for mandatory testing or tracing of senators or staff, saying: "You make it as safe as possible, you manage the risk and you go to work."
Democrats and their presidential candidate Joe Biden are demanding the nomination be left until after the election.
But Trump, trailing Biden in polls and returning to the campaign trail on Monday night less than two weeks after falling ill with COVID-19, is desperate for a swift confirmation.
Graham said a final vote could come as soon as October 22.
Barrett, a practicing Catholic, is well regarded by conservative Christians, who share many of her values including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
The judge, known for her finely honed legal arguments, vowed to apply the law apolitically and keep her faith and legal judgment separate.
"The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the people," Barrett said at Monday's hearing. "The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try."
'Eye on the ball'
Republicans argued she is the victim of liberal hostility toward religion in general, but such assaults did not materialize on Monday.
Biden weighed in to warn Democrats against questioning her faith.
Democrats instead should "keep our eye on the ball," Biden said while heading to an Ohio campaign event. "This is about, in less than one month, Americans are going to lose their health insurance."