McConnell, who has faced a chorus of outraged Democratic senators in the weeks since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, on Friday defended his decision to confirm Barrett so close to an election and took time to praise her legal credentials and jurisprudence.
But the debate Friday was also imbued with years of built-up anger over each side’s escalation in the judiciary wars.
McConnell ticked off several perceived sins from Democrats in the battle over judges throughout multiple administrations, including the successful effort in 1987 to defeat President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert H. Bork, who was ultimately rejected on a bipartisan vote; the first-ever filibuster of a circuit court nominee, under President George W. Bush; and their decision in 2013 to go “nuclear” on confirmation rules to require effectively a simple majority to process nominations.
“It’s a matter of fact — a matter of history — that it was Senate Democrats who first began our . . . contemporary difficulties back in 1987 and who initiated every single meaningful escalation,” McConnell said. “Every escalation was initiated by the other side.”
But McConnell engineered one of the most significant escalations of the judicial wars in recent years when he blocked the nomination of President Barack Obama’s third Supreme Court pick in 2016 for eight months in anticipation of the election — a move that has embittered Democrats since.
McConnell’s speech included an unusually sharp and personal jab at Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.): “I hope our colleague from New York is happy with what he has built. I hope he is happy with where his ingenuity has gotten the Senate.”
When McConnell spoke, he primarily faced the Republican side of the chamber, with his back to Democratic senators. As Schumer stood up after McConnell’s remarks, the Democrat spoke to all senators, even though at least a dozen were fiddling with their phones.
Schumer called McConnell’s speech a “tit-for-tat, convoluted version of history.”
“The Republican majority is on the precipice of making a colossal and historic mistake,” Schumer said. “The damage it does to this chamber will be irrevocable.”
Schumer painted a party of hypocrisy that had no qualms holding up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 and yet is rushing through the confirmation of Barrett just over a week before an election in which tens of millions of Americans have already voted.
To Republicans, Schumer said, “You don’t have the right to argue consistency when you’re doing what you’re doing now.”
“The majority has trampled over norms, rules, standards, honor, values, any of them that could possibly stand in its monomaniacal pursuit to put someone on the court who will take away the rights of so many Americans,” Schumer said.
Barrett’s confirmation, which has produced a rancorous yet truncated fight in the Senate, is all but assured. She has the support of nearly all GOP senators and needs only a simple majority of the Senate to clear two key floor votes en route to becoming a justice.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), facing a tough reelection fight, has said she would vote against Barrett’s confirmation, to register her opposition to her party moving on the nomination so close to a closely contested presidential election. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has also registered her objections to the process, although she has yet to say whether she will vote against Barrett on the floor.
Collins and Murkowski voted with Democrats to try to prevent McConnell from going into executive session, which he needed to do to set up the process and lock in floor votes on Barrett.
Throughout Friday, Democrats had pushed a number of dilatory procedural maneuvers, including an unexpected — yet brief — closed session that Democrats said was meant to candidly discuss the toxic process surrounding Barrett’s confirmation.
Republicans had no choice but to allow the closed session, since all it takes is one senator to offer to move into closed session and another to second it. About 20 minutes later, the Senate quickly reconvened in public. No actual discussion occurred among senators while the cameras were off.
“It's just harassment,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “It's not about substance.”
Shortly afterward, McConnell formally set up a pair of votes to confirm Barrett, 48, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
On the floor all week, Schumer has pushed for a number of votes meant to illustrate how Republicans have upended confirmation procedures. Schumer pushed for a floor vote Thursday arguing that Barrett’s nomination should not be considered — because, according to Democrats, it was reported in violation of Senate Judiciary Committee rules. (Republicans say there was no such violation.)
Democratic senators also boycotted Barrett’s vote in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, choosing instead to hold a news conference on the steps of the Capitol — giving Barrett a unanimous committee vote, yet one with an asterisk.