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McConnell Seeks Agreement To Delay Senate's Return Amid Positive Coronavirus Tests

Confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court before the election is a priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court before the election is a priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Updated at 1:21 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday that he'll seek to obtain a consent agreement to delay the return of Senate from Monday to Oct. 19 in the wake of three GOP senators testing positive for the coronavirus. In a statement, McConnell said the Senate Judiciary Committee's work can continue on Oct. 12 with the confirmation process for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee will convene on October 12th as Chairman Graham has scheduled to begin confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court," he said in the statement. "The Senate's floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair, and historically supported confirmation process previously laid out by Chairman Graham."

A separate statement from the Judiciary Committee reaffirmed the start date for Barrett's nomination.

It is still unclear whether Democrats will agree to a delayed return to the Senate. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a statement, said, "If it's too dangerous to have the Senate in session, it is also too dangerous for committee hearings to continue."

The developments mark a stunning 48 hours in Washington, which began with President Trump announcing that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, three Republican senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, have all said they too tested positive.

In that period, several Trump campaign and administration officialshave also tested positive for the virus. Many of those individuals, including Lee and Tillis, attended a Rose Garden event a week ago at which Trump named Barrett as his Supreme Court justice nominee. Johnson did not attend that event. At the time, he was under quarantine for exposure to another positive case.

"Senator Johnson feels healthy and is not experiencing symptoms," Ben Voelkel, a spokesman for Johnson, said in a statement. "He will remain isolated until given the all-clear by his doctor." When that happens, Johnson is slated to return to the Capitol.

Both Johnson and Tillis have said they aren't experiencing any symptoms from the illness. Lee has said he was suffering from allergy-like symptoms and sought the test soon after. The senators, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have said they plan to leave their quarantines in 10 days — in time for the Oct. 12 hearing to confirm Barrett.

The positive tests for the Republican senators raises questions about whether the Senate GOP will have a majority to confirm Barrett's nomination before the Nov. 3 election — a top priority for McConnell.

Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, returned last Tuesday to Washington after completing a 14-day quarantine during which he had tested negative. However, his office said he was exposed again this week to a new positive case and received a positive result after being tested again on Friday.

McConnell and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, both said Friday that their accelerated plans to approve Barrett by Election Day are still on track.

"I'm planning to move to the nomination as soon as it comes out of committee," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.

The effort could reach the Senate floor as early as Thursday, Oct. 22, following the Judiciary hearings.

Every Republican vote will count, as McConnell is facing tight margins to confirm Barrett. Democrats have largely said they are opposed to the process, potentially leaving McConnell with his 53-member majority to move Barrett's nomination forward.

Two Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have signaled they will vote no on the confirmation ahead of Election Day. That potentially leaves McConnell with a 51-member majority for the potential vote. However, the Republican Senate is still on track to meet those plans.

Lee and Tillis are expected in time for the confirmation hearings Oct. 12, and Johnson could be released soon after if he completes a traditional 14-day quarantine. If so, Johnson would be back at the Capitol well ahead of the vote for Barrett's confirmation.

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Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
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