Immediately after paying their respects to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden huddled in the Capitol to make sure their party was united in the campaign against her successor.
Amid the GOP’s unprecedented push to fill a Supreme Court vacancy right before the election with conservative Amy Coney Barrett, the top Democratic leaders agreed: The party’s sights would not shift from health care.
From senators on the Judiciary Committee to rank-and-file Democrats to the national debate stages, the relentless focus on health care has only become more intense with an election in three weeks and the high court set to consider a challenge for the Affordable Care Act. When Barrett sits down in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearings this week, expect to hear the acronym “ACA” at least as much as you hear “ACB.”
“This is the No. 1 issue that the American people care about. And it is at direct stake with this Supreme Court nominee given her past statements, given the balance on the court,” Schumer said in a telephone interview. “Early on, I got together with Pelosi and Biden and that’s what we said: ‘We’re going to focus on that above all.’”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Democrats, who are more optimistic than ever of making Schumer majority leader and putting Biden in the White House. Because Republicans are already committed to voting for her and can confirm her unilaterally, most of the drama in the committee surrounds how Democrats handle the nomination.
For Schumer, the task at hand is enormously important. Already the New York Democrat raised eyebrows when he briefly seized the Senate floor and forced a vote on protecting the Affordable Care Act, an unprecedented move for the minority leader. That vote was a key piece of Democrats’ campaign to tie Senate Republicans, Barrett and an Obamacare lawsuit together.
Democrats say the 87-year-old ranking member, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is formally in charge, but that Schumer is playing an equally integral role with his manic phone habits and intense focus on taking back the Senate. His interview with POLITICO was brief because “seven things come up every two minutes,” Schumer explained.
He is calling his members on an almost daily basis to check in with them about how they might handle the hearing, trying to coordinate without the luxury of time or in-person party meetings due to the ongoing pandemic. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), acknowledged Schumer is dealing with “very independent senators on the Judiciary Committee,” but is advising them on the political implications of their message.
He’s “been very helpful about bringing information from the political frontlines where the election is going to be decided, as to what the landmines are to avoid and what voters are most interested in,” Whitehouse, who sits on the Judiciary panel, said. “Out of that has arisen a pretty solid natural consensus about what is top priority here.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another Judiciary Committee member, said that he expects Barrett to respond to questions about her viewpoints with calm, measured answers and impenetrable legalese. He views his job as translating it for the public what a vote to confirm Barrett really means.
“A vote for Judge Barrett is a vote for repealing the ACA. And a vote for a conservative activist judge that will revisit, reconsider and repeal long-standing precedent,” Coons said of his message. “Her faith is not an issue here, nor should it be.”
Republicans are eager to see Democrats stumble in their attacks against Barrett, hoping the confirmation becomes a political lifeline that counteracts President Donald Trump’s poor polling and their uphill battle defending their majority. They are doing little to hide their hopes that Democrats question her over her Catholicism or membership in People of Praise, a small Christian network. Already, Republicans have raised Feinstein’s 2017 comment to Barrett during her Circuit Court confirmation to criticize Democrats. At the time, Feinstein told Barrett, “the dogma lives loudly within you.”
“They could wade into a posture that will be rejected by North Carolina voters,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and is fighting for reelection.
But Schumer says Democrats will not personally tear down Barrett after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing became an examination of a sexual assault allegation against him and his personal character. Barrett’s religion and her family have been deemed off limits.
“We’re focused on the issues and the merits. And on the illegitimacy of the process. We are not focusing on the personal characteristics of Amy Coney Barrett. Zero,” Schumer said. “The Republicans are so afraid of the issues of health care and women’s reproductive rights … they’re trying to create a diversion.”
Senators have been preparing for the possibility of a vacancy for months. Senate Republicans vowed in May that they’d fill an opening this year, shortly after Ginsburg was hospitalized. That same month, Senate Democratic leadership and Judiciary Committee aides began to plan for a possible vacancy, according to a Democratic leadership aide. In these discussions, Democrats strategized on their messaging, including maintaining a focus on health care.
With no procedural tools to stop Barrett from getting confirmed to the Supreme Court, the only weapon Democrats have is messaging. But Brian Fallon, executive director of the liberal Demand Justice group, says that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have been “sleepwalking” so far.
“Dianne Feinstein, Chris Coons, Dick Durbin have been going around sulking about how the Republicans have the votes. And they ought to be convincing the country about what a partisan power grab this is,” said Fallon, whose group is spending millions against Barrett’s nomination. “Get passionate.”
Coons responded that he will be as “passionate and forceful” as he can be.
“There are some folks who are literally never happy no matter what we do,” he said.
Democrats will scrutinize Barrett’s previous writings on Obamacare, including her criticism of Chief Justice John Roberts for ruling to uphold the law. Her views on abortion will also come up. She has described abortion as “always immoral,” but she’s also suggested that Roe v. Wade will endure in some form.
“This nominee poses a clear and present danger to everybody’s health care, that should be uppermost in everyone’s minds, but that’s only the start,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee. “She has a position on abortion.”
Democrats hope their questions create tension between the committee’s conservatives who want the ACA repealed and Roe struck down and those up for reelection who are staying away from such suggestions.
Schumer refused to directly comment on how Senate Republicans’ confirmation of Barrett might affect key Senate races. Ever the optimist, he said that this is a fight like the one to save Obamacare, when Schumer helped convince former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to tank his party’s repeal effort.
“This is our job to push this as hard we can, knowing it’s not an easy fight, knowing that Trump is a vindictive guy and anyone who goes against him has suffered,” Schumer said of Senate Republicans who tangle with the president.
Yet there were always enough senators complaining about Obamacare repeal to conceivably tank the bill. When it comes to Barrett, only two of 53 GOP senators oppose her confirmation before the election. Getting two more looks borderline impossible.
Democrats are “making this far-fetched argument that somehow this is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy against the ACA.” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.), a Judiciary committee member. As for potential drama at the hearing, he observed: “I don’t think it’s so much about what we [Republicans] do but what they do.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
Powered by WPeMatico