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Senate Republicans push to confirm court pick Barrett despite Trump's COVID-19 status

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans said on Friday they will carry on with the confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett despite President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 test, with Judiciary Committee hearings still set to begin on Oct. 12.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett meets with Republican Senator from Louisiana Bill Cassidy at the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., October 1, 2020. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via REUTERS

“I think we can move forward,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, even as senior Democrats urged caution.

The Republican president has asked that the Senate confirm Barrett, a federal appeals court judge, by the Nov. 3 election, which would forge a 6-3 conservative majority on the top U.S. judicial body.

“Our biggest enemy, obviously, is ... the coronavirus, keeping everybody healthy and well and in place to do our job,” McConnell added.

Barrett herself tested positive for the virus earlier this year and has since recovered, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Full steam ahead,” an aide to Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham told Reuters when asked if the schedule for hearings due to begin on Oct. 12 could change.

Graham spoke to Trump on Friday morning and said the first thing the president asked about was the Senate’s plan for Barrett’s confirmation, the aide added. McConnell also said he spoke to Trump about Barrett.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Judiciary Committee Democrat, urged against pushing forward before knowing the full extent of potential Senate exposure from Trump’s infection.

Republican Senator Mike Lee, another member of the Judiciary Committee, announced he has tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the White House and would isolate himself for 10 days. Lee met with Barrett on Tuesday as she made the rounds with individual senators this week.

“It is premature for Chairman Graham to commit to a hearing schedule when we do not know the full extent of potential exposure stemming from the president’s infection and before the White House puts in place a contact tracing plan,” Feinstein said in a joint statement with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

“The unfortunate news about the infection of our colleague Senator Mike Lee makes even more clear that health and safety must guide the schedule,” Feinstein and Schumer added.

Lee wrote on Twitter that he spoke to McConnell and Graham and “assured them I will be back to work in time to join my Judiciary Committee colleagues in advancing the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the committee and then to the full Senate.”

NOTRE DAME PRESIDENT TESTS POSITIVE

University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who attended the White House Rose Garden announcement of Barrett’s nomination last Saturday, also tested positive after regular contact with an infected colleague, the university said.

Barrett was last with Trump on Saturday when he nominated her. She was accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, who has also tested negative, in her meetings with senators.

McConnell described the Senate’s decision on whether to confirm Barrett as being “front and center for the American people” and said the chamber would act after a Judiciary Committee vote due on Oct. 22. Republicans control the Senate with a 53-47 majority, and Barrett’s confirmation seems to be a virtual lock despite opposition from Democrats.

Democrats have said the vacancy should be filled by the winner of the presidential election, a view shared by a majority of Americans in recent opinion polls. McConnell in 2016 refused to have the Senate consider Democratic President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, saying such action should not be taken during an election year.

Barrett would replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 at age 87. Trump appointed Barrett to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.

Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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