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WASHINGTON - Republicans on Saturday sought to call off legislative work in the Senate until October 19 as the coronavirus reached into their ranks. But they vowed that hearings for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee would push ahead as planned, even as lawmakers increasingly demanded testing for everyone on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett would still begin October 12, even if Democrats agreed to cancel the regular Senate session to avoid further spread of COVID-19. Since Friday morning, three GOP senators have announced they have tested positive.
"The Senate's floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair and historically supported confirmation process," the Kentucky Republican wrote. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who is running for reelection in South Carolina, added that senators could attend the hearings virtually.
"Certainly," McConnell wrote, "all Republican members of the committee will participate in these important hearings."
But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that if the COVID-19 threat was too great for Senate sessions, it made Barrett's confirmation perilous, too.
The Republicans' "drive to confirm Judge Barrett at all costs needlessly threatens the health and safety of senators, staff and all those who work in the Capitol complex," Schumer said in a statement.
Schumer notably did not say Democrats would block McConnell's plan. Doing so could force the Senate back into the confines of the Capitol without the mandatory testing of lawmakers and their aides.
The back-and-forth served as an emphatic reminder that Senate Republicans defending their majority had hoped for an election season finale focused on their power to solidify a conservative majority on the high court. But the infections of Trump, who has been hospitalized, and a series of GOP senators since Friday morning raised significant worries in Republican circles about the spread of the virus at various events where masks have been scarce.
Concern began with the White House Rose Garden ceremony last Saturday where Trump introduced Barrett. In the audience, where few people wore masks, were members of the Judiciary Committee that will handle confirmation hearings. Two members of the panel, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, on Friday announced that, like Trump, they had tested positive for the virus.
On Saturday, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is not a member of the Judiciary panel, announced that he, too, had tested positive.
With three Republican senators infected and others awaiting results, McConnell is without a fully working majority of 50 senators. He would need to rely on Vice President Mike Pence to be on hand to break any tie votes.
Amid the outbreak, members of both chambers of Congress called for a comprehensive testing plan for Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell have resisted doing so because universal testing is not available to everyone in America.
Some senators are calling for a more stringent protocol and contact tracing for Congress. Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, called on McConnell to require immediate tests for every senator and staff member who has visited the White House over the past two weeks.