Virus spreads on panel handling US Supreme Court nomination

AP , Saturday 3 Oct 2020

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Utah Sen. Mike Lee both said Friday that they had tested positive for the virus

Two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have tested positive for the coronavirus, raising questions about the timing of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett and whether additional senators may have been exposed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed the confirmation process is going ``full steam ahead.''

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Utah Sen. Mike Lee both said Friday that they had tested positive for the virus. Both attended a ceremony for Barrett at the White House on Sept. 25 with President Donald Trump, who announced Friday that he had tested positive and was later hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Lee, who did not wear a mask at the White House event, said he had ``symptoms consistent with longtime allergies.`` Tillis, who did wear a mask during the public portion of the event, said he has no symptoms. Both said they will quarantine for 10 days _ ending just before Barrett's confirmation hearings begin on Oct. 12.

The positive tests come as Senate Republicans are pushing to quickly confirm Barrett in the few weeks they have before the Nov. 3 election. There is little cushion in the schedule set out by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and McConnell, who want to put Trump's third hand-picked justice on the court immediately in case they lose any of their power in the election.

Democrats immediately seized on the announcements to call for a delay in the hearings.

``We now have two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who have tested positive for COVID, and there may be more,`` tweeted Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. ``I wish my colleagues well. It is irresponsible and dangerous to move forward with a hearing, and there is absolutely no good reason to do so.''

Several other members of the Senate Judiciary panel attended the White House ceremony, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. Blackburn said she tested negative after the event and Crapo said he ``recently'' had a negative test but an aide did not specify when he took it.

Sasse tested negative, but will work remotely from his home state and undergo further testing due to his ``close interaction with multiple infected individuals,`` his office said. He plans to return to Washington Oct. 12 _ the date confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin.

A representative for Hawley did not respond to questions about whether he had been tested.

Graham was not at the White House on Saturday but sees Trump frequently; he said Friday that he had taken a test after interacting with Lee and it was negative.

Confirmation hearings for Barrett, who would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are scheduled to last for four days. McConnell showed little interest in delaying the hearings at an event in Kentucky on Friday, saying that the Senate had been operating amid coronavirus since May and he expected to proceed normally in the coming weeks before the election. He said he thought remote hearings could work if some senators couldn't attend.

Graham also suggested the possibility of remote hearings, saying in a Twitter post that ``any senator who wants to participate virtually will be allowed to do so.'' Senators cannot vote virtually, however, so Republicans would need a full slate of committee members to approve the nomination shortly after the hearings and all of their senators on the floor for a final confirmation vote, which they hope will happen the last week of October.

Tillis is in a competitive re-election race against Democrat Cal Cunningham and the two debated Thursday evening. On Twitter, Cunningham said he wished Tillis a quick recovery and said he would also get tested.

Barrett, who was with Trump and many others on Saturday and met with Lee, Tillis and other members of the Judiciary panel this week, tested negative, the White House said Friday. It was confirmed that she had a mild case of COVID earlier this year and has now recovered.

Trump, who has consistently downplayed the virus and often discouraged the use of masks, was flown to Walter Reed on Friday evening after experiencing symptoms such as fatigue and fever. The White House said the visit was precautionary and that he would continue to work from the hospital's presidential suite, which is equipped to allow him to keep up his official duties.

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