But McConnell also vowed that the Senate would still move ahead with Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, with the Senate Judiciary Committee set to begin confirmation hearings on Oct. 12.
“The Senate’s floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair, and historically supported confirmation process previously laid out by Chairman [Lindsey] Graham,” McConnell said in a statement announcing the schedule change.
“Certainly all Republican members of the committee will participate in these important hearings,” added McConnell who noted the panel has already been allowing members to participate virtually.
The Judiciary Committee released a statement soon after affirming there was “no change” to the nomination hearing schedule.
Still, the growing infection in the GOP ranks could be a problem. Three Republican senators announced positive coronavirus diagnoses in the past 24 hours, including one, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Saturday morning. Two more GOP senators have said they are quarantining, which significantly narrows the GOP 53-member majority.
The Senate had been scheduled to come back to Washington on Monday to begin advancing other judicial nominees, but McConnell has been forced to recalibrate those plans as the pandemic hit his caucus. The House already planned to be out of session for the next several weeks.
Senate Democrats fiercely decried the Senate Judiciary Committee’s plans to continue meeting next week, arguing the move “needlessly threatens the health and safety” of lawmakers, staff and Capitol workers.
“If it’s too dangerous to have the Senate in session it is also too dangerous for committee hearings to continue,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a statement Saturday.
McConnell’s announcement comes on a chaotic Saturday in Washington, as several more members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle disclosed that they have tested positive, including his campaign manager Bill Stepien and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both had attended last weekend’s Rose Garden ceremony where Trump formally announced Barrett’s nomination, which drew high-profile guests, including many GOP senators.
Like much of the political world, Senate Republicans and Democrats have taken different approaches to the virus. Senate Democrats have canceled all in-person caucus meetings and hold conference calls instead. The GOP is still holding regular party lunches together, though in a bigger room to allow for more distancing between senators.
At this point in the pandemic, most senators in both parties are fairly diligent about wearing masks in public, though there are a few Republicans who don’t wear them as regularly even as they talk to colleagues or reporters.
Two of the GOP senators who have tested positive — Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will be considering the Coney Barrett’s nomination in the next few weeks. Both attended the White House ceremony for Barrett last weekend. The third senator, Johnson, does not serve on the Judiciary Committee and was not present for Barrett’s announcement.
Another Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), said he would get tested on Saturday after attending Barrett’s ceremony.
“The physicians did not recommend additional testing or quarantine at this time,” said Kelli Ford, a spokeswoman for Hawley. “He has no symptoms. But, out of an abundance of caution, he is being tested today and awaits results.”
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin four days of hearings for Barrett on Oct. 12, with Graham planning to hold a committee vote on Oct. 22.
The panel could still meet if the Senate is not in session, provided the two parties agree on a schedule for the Senate floor.
But while some portions of the hearings could be done remotely, senators would have to be present to approve the nomination under Senate rules.
The Judiciary Committee members’ diagnoses began to affect the panel’s work on other issues. Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Saturday cited the multiple infected members of the panel to back out of planned testimony on Tuesday as part of the committee’s review of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation. McCabe’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, also cited “fairness” reasons in declining to testify remotely.
Though Johnson (R-Wis.) had quarantined for two weeks after exposure to someone who tested positive, he was again exposed to coronavirus after his quarantine ended and he returned to Washington. He tested positive on Friday, his office said on Saturday.
“Senator Johnson feels healthy and is not experiencing symptoms. He will remain isolated until given the all-clear by his doctor,” said Ben Voelkel, a spokesperson for Johnson. “Most staff in the senator’s Washington office have been working remotely. The office will go all-virtual for the immediate future.”
Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) are also now quarantining but have not tested positive for the virus.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in a Fox News interview that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, but soon after, a spokesman said that Scott had misspoke and had actually tested negative.
Democrats have ripped the GOP for trying to fill the seat left vacant by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the November election, and they’ve renewed their calls for a delay as the virus has spread throughout the Senate.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.