Republicans continued their push to solidify a conservative hold on the nation’s judicial branch by holding a sparsely attended Senate hearing on Wednesday that all Democrats – and even a few GOP members – chose to skip.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee had protested the hearing, which took place while the Senate is in recess, and requested that it be postponed until the Senate came back into session.
The panel’s Republican chairman, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, did not attend. GOP Sen. John Kennedy presided over the hearing instead. Of the committee’s 21 members, only four – all Republicans – were seen at various times during the hearing, including Kennedy.
The Louisiana Republican began the hearing by reading a statement from Grassley that he said the chairman had asked him to read.
“I’d like to briefly mention why we’re holding this hearing while the Senate’s in recess,” Kennedy said, reading the letter from Grassley. “It’s because ranking member Feinstein agreed to hold this hearing,” a reference to the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. “The chairman as a courtesy and accommodation to the ranking member twice postponed the hearing originally scheduled for September 26. That forced the chairman to postpone the hearing scheduled for last week to today.”
Earlier in the week, however, all 10 Senate Democrats on the committee had called on Grassley to postpone the hearing – as well as another hearing set for next week – until recess is over. In a letter to Grassley sent on Monday, the panel’s Democrats wrote, “The Committee has never before held nominations hearings while the Senate is in recess before an election.”
The Democrats’ letter went on to say, “Holding hearings during a recess, when members cannot attend, fails to meet our constitutional advice-and-consent obligations. We respectfully request these hearings be postponed until after the recess.”
Democrats’ decision to skip the hearing – and the GOP decision to forge ahead – is another sign of how deeply divided the highly-influential committee has become, even more so in the wake of the confirmation process for now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. After the panel heard allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh from Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s vehement denials, the committee voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination with a favorable recommendation along party lines and on the condition of an FBI investigation. Following that investigation, the full Senate voted to elevate Kavanaugh to the high court on a mostly party line vote with one Democratic senator voting in favor of the nomination.
When the hearing began on Wednesday morning, only two Republican senators were seated at the dias: Kennedy and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Republican Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mike Crapo of Idaho were also present for parts of the hearing.
Taylor Foy, a committee spokesman for Grassley, said earlier on Wednesday that Grassley had arranged for “another Senator to chair today’s hearing back in August,” and said that “this is a common practice for lower court hearings.”
Ashley Schapitl, a spokeswoman for Feinstein, pushed back on the statement from Grassley that Kennedy read at the start of the hearing.
“The decision to postpone the September 26 hearing to October was in keeping with committee practice. It was not an ‘accommodation’ to Senator Feinstein, as was suggested today,” she said.
“Senator Feinstein never agreed to hearings during an extended recess, which has never happened before and which clearly interferes with the state work period,” Schapitl added.
Wednesday’s hearing was convened to consider a slate of judicial nominations.
The committee considered the nominations of Allison Jones Rushing to become a US Circuit Judge for the Fourth Circuit, Thomas P. Barber and Wendy Williams Berger to become US District Judges for the Middle District of Florida, Corey Landon Maze to become US District Judge for the Northern District of Alabama, Rodney Smith to become US District Judge for the Southern District of Florida and T. Kent Wetherell II to become US District Judge for the Northern District of Florida.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Kristin Wilson and Liz Landers contributed to this report.