WASHINGTON D.C. – Utah’s senior senator, Mike Lee, is one of the latest high-profile politicians to test positive for COVID-19. Will this have any impact on his role in the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings to fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court? Political analysts say that depends on how sick he gets, and how long the possible illness lasts.
Senator Lee issued a statement saying he went to the doctor after feeling symptoms “consistent with longtime allergies,” but, out of an abundance of caution, he got tested for COVID-19.
The statement reads, “Unlike the test I took just a few days ago while visiting the White House, yesterday’s test came back positive. On advice of the Senate attending physician, I will remain isolated for the next 10 days.”
Lee says he assured Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham that he will return in time for the confirmation process of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. If he’s feeling well and not showing any signs of the disease at the end of his 10-day isolation, political analysts say the confirmation hearings will go on as if nothing happened.
However, what happens if he gets very sick? University of Utah Political Science Professor Tim Chambless says, technically, Lee doesn’t have to be present for the confirmation hearings, which have been scheduled for October 12.
“Senator Lee, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, could ‘attend’ the hearing but do it remotely or virtually and be able to participate and ask questions,” says Chambless.
That decision would be up to Committee Chair Graham, but, Chambless says other committees have allowed their members to participate online.
He says, “We have seen, earlier this year, committee meetings in the Senate and the House be conducted with modern technology.”
However, things will be different if the nomination moves to the Senate floor for a vote.
“Historically, to vote on the Senate floor, you have to be [there] in person. You can’t call it in and you can’t have a staff member represent you,” according to Chambless.
Other senators have gone to great lengths to cast votes on important issues, even when their health was failing. In 1964, California Senator Claire Engle was brought into the chamber on a gurney to vote on the Civil Rights Act. Chambless says Engle was only able to lift his arm and point his finger, indicating a “yes” vote. He died of cancer six weeks after that vote.
If several senators get ill, Graham is allowed to delay the confirmation vote, pushing it closer to November. However, Chambless says this could seriously interfere with senators who need to return to their home states to campaign. He believes there really is no reason why the vote has to happen before Election Day, adding that it could be pushed back to later November or even December.
Chambless says, “A vote could be taken any time during that period before the first day that Senate meets.”