Progressives are spoiling for a fight over the Supreme Court, and Democrats’$2 2020 presidential prospects are eager to lead them into the battle.
Two senators weighing presidential runs, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, are on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Already, the two are sharpening their cases against Kavanaugh. Harris will focus on how his confirmation could tip the court’s balance against abortion rights and other progressive health care priorities, an aide said.
“This is about replacing the authority of government – putting the government’s authority ahead of the authority of a woman to make a decision about her own body and her future,” Harris said at a news conference Tuesday. “So if you are a young woman in America, or you care about a young woman in America, pay attention to this, because it will forever change your life.”
Booker, according to an aide, will argue that Trump shouldn’t appoint a justice while under investigation over his campaign’s ties to Russia. And like Harris, he is playing up the stakes of the Supreme Court battle.
“I look forward to standing with my colleagues and all Americans in what will be the most important fight of our lifetimes. There’ll be no greater,” Booker said Tuesday at the same news conference as Harris, with other Senate Democrats on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Though Democrats – egged on by an energized progressive base – are promising to fiercely oppose Kavanaugh, they have no real power to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate, enough to confirm a Supreme Court nominee without any Democratic votes. And three Democrats up for re-election this year in Republican-leaning states – Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – previously voted for Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation and are being courted by the White House as potentially votes for Kavanaugh, as well.
The confirmation battle could serve, though, as a test run for prospective 2020 candidates to flex their rhetorical muscles and engage with the base in the early stages of the next presidential election.
Harris, in particular, has won praise from progressives for her sharp questioning of Trump appointees in previous hearings.
The former California attorney general is the last member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask questions in hearings. That gives Harris, who prepares extensively for the hearings, an opportunity to identify questions she believes the person testifying hasn’t sufficiently answered – and then pounce, serving as the closer for Democrats.
That’s what happened with Gina Haspel, Trump’s CIA director, in a May confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Harris is also a member.
In the hearing, Harris asked Haspel whether the George W. Bush-era techniques for interrogating terror suspects, like waterboarding, were immoral, and Haspel deflected. “Answer yes or no,” Harris shot back.
She interrupted again when Haspel tried to dodge the question. “Please answer, yes or no: Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?”
When Haspel deflected again, Harris said, “Will you please answer the question?”
And when Haspel said, “senator, I think I’ve answered the question,” Harris responded, “No you’ve not.”
Later, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain alluded to Harris’ line of questioning when he announced his opposition to Haspel’s nomination, saying, “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
Harris’ style also put her in the spotlight in June 2017, when twice in one week Republican members of the Intelligence Committee sought to interrupt her questioning of Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In the Judiciary Committee in April, she also prompted Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg to contradict himself several times about why the company did not inform tens of millions of users in 2015 that their data had been improperly sold.
For his part, Booker – who joined protesters on the steps of the Supreme Court on Monday night just after Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced – has echoed activists’ warnings that Kavanaugh could undercut Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, but has focused primarily on arguing that Trump shouldn’t appoint a Supreme Court justice while his campaign’s ties to Russia are the subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“The Senate should not move forward with this confirmation, should not go forward with advising and consenting on this individual until this prosecution, this criminal investigation, is done,” Booker said Tuesday. “And if we do go forward, then every Republican, every Democrat should join together with insisting that Kavanaugh recuse himself from any matter regarding this President that should come before the Supreme Court.”
Stylistically, Booker tends to ask longer, bigger-picture questions than Harris – though he’s been part of key moments, as well.
One such moment came in January, when he told Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen that her “silence and your amnesia is complicity” when she denied hearing Trump refer to “s***hole countries” in a private meeting.
Even more prominently, in January 2017, Booker testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee before he became a member of that committee against Sessions’ nomination for attorney general.
“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens,” Booker said then.
Another sometimes-mentioned 2020 presidential prospect, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is also on the Judiciary Committee.
She said Tuesday the Supreme Court makes decisions about “about who you can marry, about where you can work, about if you can vote, and in the case of my grandpa, who worked 1,500 feet underground in the mines his whole life, about if his workplace was safe.”
Klobuchar also warned of the potential for the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion everywhere to be undone if Kavanaugh is confirmed.
“We cannot go back to a time when women are made criminals for making a choice about what to do with their own bodies. We cannot go back to a time when they can’t make a decision about their own contraceptives,” she said. “When you look at what’s happening in this country, people want to move forward.”