US V-P hopeful Kamala Harris gets chance to quiz Trump's Supreme Court nominee Barrett, with proper caution

Senator Kamala Harris asked Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, whether she knew of the president's tweets saying he wanted to nominate a judge who would overturn Obamacare.
US Senator Kamala Harris speaks virtually to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in Washington on Oct 12, 2020.
US Senator Kamala Harris speaks virtually to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in Washington on Oct 12, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US vice-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday (Oct 13) for a closely watched Supreme Court confirmation hearing, working to balance her instinct for a newsmaking cross-examination of the nominee with the Biden campaign's need to maintain its steady lead.

Harris is one of the most junior members of the committee, but also a Democratic Party standard-bearer as the vice- presidential nominee. She is largely leaving the campaign trail just three weeks from Election Day for what will probably be a futile battle to stop Republicans from confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

At the hearing Tuesday, Harris questioned Barrett, a devout Roman Catholic, about abortion rights. Pointing to the judge's previous statements opposing abortion, Harris challenged her on her refusal to weigh in on any matters that could come before the court and warned that the right to abortion could be in the balance.

"As the Senate considers filling the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was straightforward enough in her confirmation hearing to say that the right to choose is 'essential to woman's equality,' I would suggest that we not pretend that we don't know how this nominee views a woman's right to choose to make her own health care decisions," Harris said.

The former district attorney and attorney-general elevated her national platform at the start of President Donald Trump's term with her questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney-General William Barr, propelling her unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But now as Joe Biden's No. 2, Harris might have been inclined to tamp down some of her prosecutorial instincts, wary of alienating voters or endangering the risk-averse Biden campaign's polling lead, according to people familiar with her planning for the hearing.

She, like some other Democrats, is participating in the hearing remotely, after several committee members tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

That made it more difficult for her to have any breakout moments like the clips from past exchanges - in particular, her questioning of Kavanaugh on abortion rights when she asked him if he could point to any laws that "give the government the power to make decisions about the male body."

Harris isn't the only committee member with an election at stake. The chairman, Lindsey Graham, and fellow Republican members Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst and John Cornyn all are in re-election battles.

Graham's Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, reported raising US$57 million (S$77.2 million) in the third quarter, more than any Senate candidate in that time frame in US history.

But for Harris, the hearing comes less than a week after her debate with Vice-President Mike Pence, a performance cheered by Democrats, and her biggest television audience since the Democratic National Convention in August.

The hearing began Monday with opening statements, which will be followed by two days of questions, but even Graham acknowledged none of the rhetoric will likely change any minds, with Democrats voting no and Republicans voting to confirm Barrett.

The Biden campaign said Harris would be fully engaged in the hearings while continuing to be active on the campaign trail.

"We will talk to voters any which way we can," Liz Allen, Harris's campaign communications director, said after the debate last week, adding, "We can talk to voters virtually, in person, in writing."

But while the campaign and her Senate office are legally not allowed to coordinate on strategy and tactics, Democrats across the board are united in their messaging approach.

As Monday's opening statements showed, they are focusing on the hearings on policies - particularly health care - more than Barrett's personal life or her religious faith.

In fact, they are hoping to avoid the fireworks that characterised Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, which centred around a sexual assault allegation from his high-school years. Instead, the questions have highlighted the policy implications of adding Barrett to the high court.

"This nominee said she wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act," Biden told reporters on Monday. "The president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. Let's keep our eye on the ball."

Just a week after Election Day, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a case that could gut the Affordable Care Act and take away protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Democrats pushed Barrett on the issue, as she has criticised past court rulings upholding the law known as Obamacare. Barrett demurred, saying only that she would put aside her personal feelings when considering any case.

Harris, a junior committee member, was one of the last senators to question the court nominee. Along with abortion rights, Harris's questions focused on the Obamacare case. She warned about the consequences if the health care law was rolled back during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The Affordable Care Act and all its protections hinge on this seat and the outcome of this hearing," Harris said Tuesday.

"And I believe it's very important the American people understand the issues at stake, and what's at play."