In his opening remarks Monday morning at Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) painted the U.S. Supreme Court nominee as an existential threat to the Affordable Care Act and criticized his Republican colleagues for rushing her confirmation amid a pandemic and a presidential election.
Leahy, echoing a description he used two years ago when the Senate Judiciary Committee was embroiled in the vetting process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said the GOP-led effort to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been "nothing but a sham."
"It's the responsibility of this committee to consider her replacement on the Supreme Court, but this isn't the way we should do it," Leahy said, noting that he has witnessed 20 other Supreme Court nominations during his 46 years on the Judiciary Committee.
"Justice Ginsburg, I am certain, would have dissented," he later said. "And I will, too, on behalf of Vermonters, on behalf of the integrity of the Senate, and on behalf of the majority of Americans who oppose this process."
Leahy and several colleagues — including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee — participated in Monday's hearing remotely due to health concerns after two members of the Judiciary panel were recently infected with the coronavirus.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both tested positive after attending a packed event two weeks ago at the White House Rose Garden, when President Donald Trump announced Barrett as his nominee for the court vacancy.
Lee, who announced his diagnosis 10 days ago, attended Monday's confirmation hearing in person, telling a conservative radio host that his doctor had cleared him to participate. Tillis, meantime, participated remotely, as did Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was finishing a period of self-quarantine after coming into contact with Lee.
Leahy attended a Judiciary hearing alongside Lee and Tillis late last month but tested negative for the virus last week. He and other Democratic senators had called on committee chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to postpone Barrett's confirmation proceedings until there is a clear testing regimen on Capitol Hill to ensure that the hearings "do not become another super-spreader" event.
And, Leahy noted in his remarks, the hearings come as the Senate has repeatedly failed to take up legislation to provide aid for people hit hard by the pandemic.
"Instead of talking about COVID and doing something to help the American people, we're engaged in this mad rush to fill a Supreme Court vacancy on the eve of a presidential election," Leahy said.
But Graham maintained the committee's schedule. In his opening statement, the South Carolina senator said the hearing room had been prepped to make sure it was compliant with federal coronavirus safety guidelines.
“There are millions of Americans — cops, waitresses, nurses, you name it — going to work today to do their job, and we’re going to work in the Senate to do our job,” said Graham, who has refused to be tested for the virus despite sitting in the room with Lee and Tillis at last month's hearing.
Graham also pushed back on criticisms that the GOP-controlled Senate is engaging in blatant hypocrisy as it races to confirm Barrett just three weeks before Election Day. In 2016, the Senate refused to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, whom then-president Barack Obama had nominated to the high court eight months before the presidential election.
"There's nothing unconstitutional about this process," Graham said. "This is a vacancy that's occurred through a tragic loss of a great woman. And we're going to fill that vacancy with another great woman. The bottom line here is that the Senate is doing its duty."
Leahy, however, blasted his GOP counterparts for going "back on their word" and "contradicting every argument they made four years ago."
"We should not have had a nomination ceremony before Justice Ginsburg was even buried, while the nation was mourning her passing," Leahy said. "We should not be holding a hearing just 16 days later, when this committee has afforded three times as long to vet other nominees to our nation's highest court. We shouldn't be holding a hearing three weeks from a presidential election, when millions of Americans have already voted."
Leahy then focused the remainder of his 10-minute remarks on what a Barrett confirmation would mean for the future of health care coverage, pointing to comments she has previously made about the unconstitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.
More than 60,000 Vermonters enrolled through the Medicaid expansion program could lose coverage if the Supreme Court overturns the law, while more than 20,000 enrolled in the state health care exchange would lose federal subsidies, according to Leahy's office.
Leahy spoke of two Vermonters in particular who had reached out to his office with concerns about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act: Martha Richards, who currently qualifies for the law's expanded Medicaid program; and Mary Nadon Scott, who suffers from a rare neurological disease that is considered a pre-existing condition.
Leahy said he does not believe Barrett "personally desires these consequences, or personally desires to devastate the lives of these two Vermonters." But he said Barrett's stated views on the landmark health care law would nonetheless impact those Vermonters and many others who have reached out to his office in recent weeks.
"They're scared, Judge Barrett. They're scared that your confirmation would rip [away] the very health care protections that millions of Americans have fought to maintain and which Congress has repeatedly rejected eliminating," Leahy said. "They're scared that the clock will be turned back to a time when women had no right to control their own bodies, and when it was acceptable to discriminate against women in the workplace.
"They're scared that a time when we are facing the perilous impacts of climate change, bedrock environmental protections are going to be eviscerated," Leahy continued. "And they're scared that your conformation will result in the rolling back of voting rights, workers rights and the rights of the LGBTQ community to equal treatment."
"These aren't just thoughts," he added. "These are real-life implications of decisions made by the court."
Monday’s hearing was expected to last most of the day, with each of the 20 committee members given 10 minutes to deliver an opening statement. Barrett will be the last to speak, offering up her own introductory statement. She will then take questions over the next few days.
Graham said he hoped to hold a committee vote on her nomination on October 22, which would provide enough time for the full Senate to confirm her to the high court before Election Day.