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McConnell Closes Senate Floor, Proceeds With Barrett Hearings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the events in the timeline of President Trump's illness is a ceremony at the White House. He celebrated the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. A number of people at that event have since tested positive for coronavirus, including two U.S. senators. A third tested positive separately, all of which complicates the drive to confirm Barrett and do other Senate business. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is covering all this. Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How are Senate leaders responding to this news?

SNELL: Well, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had originally planned to just kind of forge ahead when this was - it seemed like it was just a few people who had tested positive. But he has announced that the Senate will - he will attempt to close the Senate for two weeks. McConnell says that he has tested negative; so did Speaker Pelosi. But there's really no plan for widespread testing in the Capitol.

Now, the senators that you mentioned includes Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and the third senator who was not at the Rose Garden who tested positive is Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. There's also one other Republican senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is in kind of protective quarantine to ensure that he is not infected. You know, nobody really is in the clear yet because the Senate was in session last week. And that's a problem, particularly for the Judiciary Committee, where Sasse and Tillis and Lee all sit.

INSKEEP: Isn't the Judiciary Committee the committee that is supposed to be considering Barrett's nomination in a few days - one week?

SNELL: It is. And, you know, that so far does not appear to be changing plans for her confirmation hearings because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is only talking about closing the floor of the Senate and not preventing committees from doing their business. Now, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said there's plenty of precedent for hybrid hearings - some people in the room, some people attending virtually. And Democrats say that that's just not acceptable for a Supreme Court nominee who would be appointed to a lifetime position at the Supreme Court.

Plus, they say it's dangerous to have anybody in the room given the risks of recent exposure. Just last night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put out a statement demanding that there be required testing for the entire committee before any hearings, which puts real pressure on Chairman Graham because Graham has his own political future to weigh here. He's up for reelection in a race that's getting increasingly tight.

INSKEEP: Oh, that is absolutely true. He had a tricky debate over the weekend...

SNELL: He did.

INSKEEP: ...In which his opponent put up a Plexiglas shield between himself and Sen. Graham. I want to ask about one other thing. There had not been progress on further coronavirus relief for the country, and now the president is sending tweets from the hospital saying, get this done. Are they?

SNELL: Well, that - it's very hard to say right now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she's committed, but she was on "Face The Nation" on CBS yesterday and she wouldn't commit to whether a deal would get done this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

NANCY PELOSI: It just depends on if they understand what we have to do to crush the virus. You can't just say, we need to do something, but we're going to let the virus run free. Now it's even run free in the White House.

SNELL: You know, there is huge pressure to get something done before the election. Democrats have complained all along that it - that they needed the president to step in to sway Republicans and that all it takes is a tweet from him to pressure them to move on a bill, even if it's something that Republicans typically wouldn't like. This puts coronavirus front and center in the election again in a way that was completely unavoidable when voters, you know, were thinking about other things just a few weeks ago.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell, who covers Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.