WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate dispensed with a key procedural hurdle Sunday on the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, as Republicans race to a final confirmation vote Monday that will solidify the high court’s conservative tilt.
In a rare weekend floor vote mostly along party lines, 51-48, Republicans backed President Donald Trump’s pick of the reliably conservative federal appeals court judge to fill the vacancy left by the death last month of the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The only Republicans voting against the cloture motion were Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. On Saturday, Murkowski said she would vote Sunday against cutting off debate on the motion, but would vote to confirm Barrett on Monday.
At the same time, Democratic senators decried a plan to have Vice President Mike Pence preside over Monday night’s vote for the Supreme Court nominee from his state, even though his chief of staff and other staffers in his office tested positive for COVID-19.
Pence’s office said he has tested negative. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, in a letter to the caucus, said members of a senator’s staff tested positive for the highly contagious novel coronavirus as well. He recommended that senators “not congregate in the Senate chamber today and that you cast your votes quickly and from a safe distance.”
“Their carelessness with the health and safety of their colleagues and Capitol employees mirrors their carelessness with the health and safety of Americans during this crisis,” Schumer wrote.
The compressed timeline Republicans set for the confirmation process means that Barrett, a longtime legal academic at Notre Dame law school and an appellate judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 2017, will arrive on the court in time to decide cases on contentious political and social issues.
If confirmed, Barrett will boost the long-running advantage for justices appointed by Republican presidents from 5-4 to 6-3, which would mean the liberal wing would have to pick up at least two votes from the conservative wing to find any victories in cases on ideologically divisive issues.
The court is expected to soon decide any legal challenges over the presidential election and a case that threatens to wipe out the 2010 health care law.
Also on the docket before the end of the year are cases on the Trump administration’s handling of the 2020 census and the House Judiciary Committee’s effort to see grand jury materials from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As it had appeared from the start, Democrats simply did not have enough votes to stop Barrett’s confirmation process vote Sunday. Republicans moved Barrett’s nomination over a Democratic boycott at the Senate Judiciary Committee, despite procedural maneuvering on the floor Friday — including a rare closed session — and on the motion Sunday to cut off debate and proceed to a final confirmation vote.
Democrats similarly appear unlikely to have the votes to stop her confirmation Monday, just eight days before the end of the election that will determine who will select the next four years of judicial nominees and which party will control the Senate that must confirm them to lifetime positions.
The timing of Sunday’s vote underscores how Republicans pushed to confirm a Supreme Court pick just days ahead of an election. Four years earlier, they refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland, for eight months because they said it was too close to a presidential election.
Schumer and Democrats criticized that reversal as a partisan power grab that will damage the Senate and the reputation of the Supreme Court as a non-partisan branch of government.
But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans did not flinch. McConnell said the Senate’s rules allowed for the move and blamed Democrats for every escalation in the long-running judicial confirmation battle.