WASHINGTON – It was the hug that may define — or doom — a long Senate career.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California embraced Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham at the close of confirmation hearings Thursday for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, publicly thanking the chairman for a job well done.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Calls for her ouster from Democratic leadership were swift, unequivocal and relentless.
“It’s time for Sen. Feinstein to step down from her leadership position on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, which opposes conservative nominees to the courts. “If she won’t, her colleagues need to intervene.”
Eli Zupnick, the spokesman for Fix Our Senate, said: “Senator Feinstein is absolutely wrong about what is happening in the Senate and in her Committee."
He said in his statement that Republicans are trying to “jam" Barrett's nomination through the Senate and it “should not be treated as a legitimate confirmation process.”
The response was not a knee-jerk reaction to an off-the-cuff moment between two longtime senators, but a slow-burning frustration among leading liberal advocates that the panel's top Democrat is no longer the right fit for the job.
Supreme Court confirmation battles have gone from bipartisan Senate fare to bare-knuckle brawls as Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mounted an aggressive Trump-era campaign to transform the judiciary with conservative judges.
Trump has been able to install more than 200 judges on the federal bench and is now poised to seat his third justice on the Supreme Court.
Barrett is being rushed to confirmation before the Nov. 3 election to replace the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a shift locking in a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come. Rulings on abortion, gay marriage, health care and others are in sight.
Fallon said in a statement that Democrats can no longer be led on the Judiciary panel by someone who treats "the Republican theft of a Supreme Court seat with kid gloves.”
Feinstein, 87, has been taking it from all sides during Barrett's nomination process.
Republicans attacked the senator for questioning Barrett's Catholic faith three years ago when the then-Notre Dame Law School professor was undergoing confirmation proceedings for the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals.
At the time, Feinstein said Barrett's opposition to abortion must be rooted in her religion and questioned if it would influence her rulings on the bench, saying the “dogma lives loudly in you."
It became a rallying point this week for Republicans defending Barrett's faith, so much so that Graham praised the judge as an “unashamedly pro-life” nominee who could be a role model to other conservative women.
Feinstein avoided the trap and was careful during her questioning of Barrett not to probe her faith. Democrats were determined to avoid a repeat of the 2017 hearing.
But as other Democratic senators seized the spotlight, utilizing the four days of hearings to lob attacks against Trump and his court nominee, Feinstein often took a more diplomatic approach. At one point she declared herself “impressed” with Barrett's handling of questions. Eyes rolled.
Still, despite the complaints, Democrats have Feinstein to thank for a few key moments during the process.
It was Feinstein who drew a notable non-answer from Barrett when asked if she agreed with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, her mentor, that the Voting Rights Act "perpetuated racial entitlement."
And Barrett gave Feinstein a similar no comment when asked if she agreed with other conservatives who argue that Medicare, the senior health care program, is unconstitutional.
Feinstein's office declined further comment, but pointed to the senator's statement.
“Judiciary Committee Democrats had one goal this week: to show what’s at stake under a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court — and we did that,” Feinstein said. “We showed that Judge Barrett has a long history of opposing the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade and represents the vote to overturn both.”
But those moments may be forgotten for the one that is now being remembered — all the more notable because it happened during the COVID-19 crisis, with neither senator wearing a mask. It was the hug.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.