WASHINGTON – Faced with long odds of stopping President Donald Trump from filling another Supreme Court vacancy, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar decided early on to turn this week’s hearings on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination into a get-out-the-vote campaign.
The Minnesota Democrat, who started the year as a presidential hopeful, also used her three rounds of questions before a national TV audience to create several moments that would echo throughout social media, where liberal critics of Barrett were looking for Senate Democrats to rattle Trump’s nominee.
While Klobuchar had her moments, Republican senators left the hearings feeling good about Barrett’s performance. In three days of hearings, Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats got few answers to their questions as Barrett said she did not want to reveal positions on potential cases. Klobuchar’s confrontations, while polite, became visibly strained.
But as the lone Minnesota senator on the Judiciary Committee since Al Franken resigned from the Senate, Klobuchar used her precious time in the national stage to champion progressive positions on voting rights, the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, and access to legal abortion, issues that Democrats have sought to champion in the race for the White House.
She also made personal and often emotional appeals to voters to reject the GOP’s effort to confirm Barrett before the Nov. 3 election.
“They have given us this platform,” Klobuchar said in an interview Wednesday, speaking of Republicans she thinks are trying to “ram through” a conservative judge who would tip the nation’s highest tribunal to the right for decades just before a possible change of administration.
“I decided, OK, [Republicans] decided to do this in the middle of an election for [their] own party’s reasons and not for our country,” Klobuchar said. “I think we’ve got to use the moment to remind people what’s at stake in our democracy.”
Pressing Barrett on the Affordable Care Act — the focus of many Democrats’ inquiries — Klobuchar produced a White House legal filing that called for the health care law to be killed in its entirety, not just in part. She also read a Trump tweet in which the president promised to appoint judges who would “do the right thing” on the law. She repeatedly pressed Barrett on how much she knew about the president’s opposition to the health care law before and after her nomination.
This eventually evoked a terse response from Barrett. She told Klobuchar all of her questions suggested that “I have animus [for the health care law] and made a deal with the president.”
No such animus and no such deal exists, Barrett insisted.
Klobuchar’s sharp exchanges with Barrett came under fire from conservative pundits but showed a passion that some saw as a new side of her public persona.
“Folks, Klobuchar is showing me a side of her today that I did not know existed,” tweeted Chicago activist, educator and author Joyce Hutchens. “I didn’t see this when she campaigned for president. This lady is a pistol.”
Said Klobuchar afterward: “Anyone who wants a strong democracy [would] get emotional about it if you love our country.”
Klobuchar channeled that emotion into more grilling of Barrett on Wednesday, reminding her that her appointment will “change the balance of the court” to a 6-3 conservative majority. Barrett, Klobuchar said, will be a “deciding vote” in decisions that will “have great repercussions” for Americans.
She also teased that were it Democrat Joe Biden, not Trump, filling the vacancy left by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it might be Klobuchar, not Barrett, in the committee’s witness chair getting vetted for the high court.
“I might have thought someday I’d be sitting in that chair,” she told Barrett on Tuesday. “I’m not. I’m up here, so I’m asking you.”
The jest made its way around social media and cable news, but it wasn’t the first time the former Hennepin County Attorney came up in connection with the Supreme Court. Her name popped up on multiple national media lists of feasible prospects in 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Then President Barack Obama turned to Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination was blocked by the Senate Republican majority, which argued at the time that a newly elected president should make the pick.
Since then, the two parties have reversed positions on election-year Supreme Court appointments.
Still, the Garland episode has colored Barrett’s confirmation process for Democrats, raising questions about whether Biden, now leading in the polls, might expand the size of the court for ideological balance if Democrats take back the White House and the Senate.
As a presidential candidate, Klobuchar expressed openness to the idea, though she said it would depend on the political circumstances in the Senate.
Asked after Wednesday’s hearings if she is confident Democrats will take both the White House and the Senate, Klobuchar said she is “never totally confident” after Trump’s surprise election in 2016.
“What I’m confident about,” she said, “is people are motivated and they’re voting.”