Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who sit on the Judiciary Committee, tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday — just days after attending a White House event where President Donald Trump nominated Barrett. Multiple attendees of that event, including Trump, have tested positive in the week since the ceremony, which featured many people not wearing masks and not observing social distancing protocols.
Johnson did not attend the Barrett nomination ceremony — where several people appeared to have been exposed to the virus — because he was quarantining from a prior exposure, during which he twice tested negative for the virus, according to the spokesman.
Unlike Democratic senators, Senate Republicans meet three times a week for lunch. And while they sit in a large room, they remove their masks to eat and to speak. Johnson, Lee and Tillis all attended Senate GOP lunches this week.
If the three senators remain out this month, it would effectively prevent Barrett from being confirmed to the Supreme Court until they return, which could be after Election Day during a lame-duck session. A lame-duck confirmation is a situation that GOP leaders are eager to avoid in case they lose control of the chamber next month.
Indeed, Republicans are worried about getting enough votes to confirm a nominee in a lame-duck session after the election if they lose their majority — and the White House — and Democrats prepare to take power in January. The fear is that one or two GOP senators may break ranks after seeing the election results and citing the will of the voters.
Already, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have indicated they are “no” votes if the confirmation vote happens before the election, and could vote against a nominee in a lame-duck session as well.
With a 53-47 Senate majority, Republicans can not afford to lose more than three senators in order to get the nomination confirmed.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told CNN on Friday night that he planned to push forward and hold hearings beginning October 12 and would try to get the nomination approved by his panel by October 22. Graham could hold virtual confirmation hearings for Barrett, or hold the hearing in person but have Lee and Tillis attend remotely if they’re still in quarantine.
Graham would need a majority of his committee present for a quorum in order to approve the nomination, and the absences of Lee and Tillis could prevent that from happening if Democrats boycott the proceedings. But even if they don’t have a quorum, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can always advance the nomination to the floor under the rules without a committee vote.
Johnson is not on the Judiciary panel but would not be able to vote on the floor if he were not present. Johnson’s office said the Wisconsin senator was again exposed “shortly after” returning to Washington on September 29 and was tested Friday afternoon.
“This test came back positive. Senator Johnson feels healthy and is not experiencing symptoms. He will remain isolated until given the all-clear by his doctor,” Voelkel said in a statement.
Most of the staff in the Republican senator’s Washington office have been working remotely, and the office will go all-virtual for the immediate future, Voelkel said.
This story has been updated with additional background information and context.
CNN’s Megan Trimble and Terence Burlij contributed to this story.