To get to Monday’s vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, Senate Republicans had to plow through a historically narrow timeframe, a superspreader event that infected the president of the United States and several of their own, and an eleventh-hour COVID-19 risk to the vice president planning to preside over the vote himself.
Ultimately, none of it mattered. On Monday night, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52 to 48, with only Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) crossing party lines by joining all Democrats to vote no.
It took just 30 days for Barrett to be confirmed, and no high court nominee has ever been approved—let alone received a vote—so close to a presidential election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vowed to get the confirmation done before Nov. 3, and he did so with a week to spare. And he didn’t need Vice President Mike Pence, who has the power to break ties in the Senate as president of the chamber. Pence ultimately skipped the vote, as Democrats publicly urged him not to come after his chief of staff tested positive for COVID-19.
Win or lose at the ballot box next week, President Trump and McConnell will have together confirmed three justices to the high court, shaping its balance for decades to come. With Barrett on the court, conservatives hold a clear majority, six justices to three, which could usher in rulings that the right has been waiting on for years.
The Senate GOP leader made the impact of their victory clear during a speech from the floor on Sunday. "A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election,” said McConnell. “They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come."
Republicans plan to celebrate the achievement by swearing in Barrett in the White House Rose Garden—the very spot where the event to announce her nomination a month ago resulted in a COVID-19 outbreak that infected many notables in the party. Many GOP lawmakers indicated on Monday that they might skip the event.
Speaking on the Senate floor, just before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called Monday “one of the darkest days” in the 231-year history of the Senate and a key part of a “decades-long effort to tilt the judiciary to the far right.”
“You may win this vote,” Schumer told his GOP colleagues, “but you will never get your credibility back.”
Not long after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month, Democrats understood they didn’t have the votes to stop yet another Trump high court pick. They’ve sought to delegitimize the process—for example, boycotting last week’s Judiciary Committee vote to advance Barrett’s nomination—and turning the proceedings into a 2020 campaign weapon by homing in on the policy implications of the confirmation. Their focus on the court’s upcoming hearing of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act was so relentless that Republicans joked they’d turned the proceedings into a health insurance committee hearing.
Under tough pressure from an outraged liberal base, many Democrats also publicly warned that the GOP’s move to rush a nominee through right before the election—four years after blocking President Obama from filling a seat before the election—would necessarily provoke a strong Democratic response should the party take back the Senate, a possibility McConnell played up in his remarks.
Ultimately, Democrats marshaled every vote they could, and presented a united front against Barrett’s nomination. The vote on Monday marks the first time in modern Senate history that not a single member of the party opposing the president voted to confirm one of his high court nominees. Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the only Democratic senator who voted for Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, said on Sunday that Barrett’s process was “far from business as usual” and warned it would further erode the norms of the Senate.
Meanwhile, the fact that only Collins—who faces a tough reelection in Maine this fall—voted against Barrett offers an equally striking display of the GOP’s single-minded determination to confirm another justice. And it speaks to how totally comfortable the party was in abandoning their election-year rationale behind blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016, betting that voters would not punish them for it. Republicans argued that the 2016 and 2018 elections gave them a clear mandate from voters to fill the seat, despite how close to the election it opened—and despite the unequivocal statements from some in 2016 that, if the shoe were on the other foot, they would not fill the seat.
The confirmation process concluded on Sunday and Monday with bitter remarks from both parties’ senators, and accusations that the other had stained the institution of the Senate for good. But Democrats, in particular, seemed galvanized by the GOP’s aggressive power play to confirm Barrett, with even the party’s moderates left speculating that there may be no choice but for them to respond forcefully.
"I don't want to pack the court,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, from the Senate floor on Sunday night. “I don't want to change the number. I don't want to have to do that, but if all of this rule-breaking is taking place, what does the majority expect? What do they expect?”