'The world is watching': Senate hearing opens for U.S. Supreme Court pick Barrett

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday opened its four-day confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in what the panel’s chairman predicted would be a “contentious week,” as Republicans seek to approve her ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett listens to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) deliver his opening statement at the start of the confirmation hearing on her nomination to serve as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

Democrats are firmly opposed to Barrett.

The hearing for Barret, picked by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, started with senators making opening statements. Barrett herself will make her own opening statement after the 22 members of the committee are given a chance to speak.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who chairs the committee, began by paying tribute to Ginsburg and said Barrett, a conservative appellate court judge, would be a “worthy successor.”

“This is going to be a long contentious week,” Graham said, adding, “Let’s make it respectful. Let’s make it challenging. Let’s remember, the world is watching.”

Barrett sat at a table facing the senators wearing a black face mask. Her husband and seven children sat behind her, also wearing protective masks, as the hearing got underway.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett’s confirmation seems almost certain, as Graham acknowledged.

“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.

Graham acknowledged that Senate Republicans four years earlier refused to act on Democratic President Barack 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.

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“I feel that we are doing this constitutionally,” Graham said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, said that Democrats intended to focus on healthcare during the hearing.

As a result of health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, not all the senators will participate in person. Those present in the hearing room on Capitol Hill, which will include Barrett and her family, will be socially distanced and follow other guidelines.

Each senator has the final call on whether to attend in person. Democratic Senator 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.

The hearing is a key step before a final full Senate vote by the end of October on her nomination for a lifetime job on the court.

Barrett is expected to tell senators that as a judge she seeks to “reach the result required by the law, whatever my own preferences might be,” according to a copy of her prepared remarks released on Sunday.

Barrett, 48, said in the statement that it will be an “honor of a lifetime” to serve alongside the current eight justices.

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Her confirmation would create a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that could lead to rulings rolling back abortion rights, expanding religious and gun rights, and upholding Republican-backed voting restrictions, among other issues.

Democrats have focused their criticism so far on Barrett’s potentially vital role in a case pending before the Supreme Court in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act healthcare law, often called Obamacare.

One key provision bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Democrats have called on Barrett to recuse herself from the case, saying she would have a conflict of interest because Trump has called for the law to be struck down.

They have also demanded that she step aside from any cases involving the presidential election because Trump has said the court is likely to have to settle cases over electoral disputes.

Trump, who is running for re-election against Biden, has indicated he would expect the court to rule in his favor if Barrett is confirmed.

Under existing rules, individual justices have the final say on whether they should recuse.

Barrett, a devout Catholic who has expressed opposition to abortion, is expected to face Democratic questioning on that issue too. Christian conservative activists long have hoped for the court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Barrett will face questions from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday in lengthy all-day sessions. The hearing is due to conclude on Thursday with outside witnesses testifying about her qualifications.

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