A divided US Senate drew battle lines Monday over the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's pick to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, as protesters faced off outside a hearing slammed as "reckless" amid a pandemic.
Barrett was accompanied by her husband and six of their seven children, all masked, for Monday's hearing, keeping her black facemask on through the hours-long opening remarks from Senate panelists -- with questioning to begin Tuesday, exactly three weeks before the November 3 election.
Democrats are largely powerless to block confirmation of the 48-year-old, who was tapped last month by the Republican president to succeed liberal justice and women's rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died of cancer on September 18.
The hearing, forced onto the calendar even as millions of Americans have already cast election ballots, has emerged as a political flashpoint.
Dueling crowds of demonstrators rallied outside the Senate office building where the hearing occurred, brandishing signs for and against the conservative law professor's lifetime appointment. US Capitol Police made 22 arrests.
The Senate, controlled by Republicans, is constitutionally tasked with approving nominations to the high court, where conservatives now occupy five of nine seats. Barrett could cement the bench's rightward tilt for decades.
"This is going to be a long, contentious week," acknowledged Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham. "The bottom line here is that the Senate is doing its duty."
While Republicans praised Barrett as a competent nominee grounded in family values -- Senator Mike Braun introduced her as "a legal titan who drives a minivan" -- one Democrat summarized his party's hostility to her confirmation, calling her a "judicial torpedo" fired at the health law that protects millions of Americans.
And Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris -- speaking by videolink -- slammed as "reckless" the decision to hold the hearing at all amid a pandemic, with two Republican panelists among a recent outbreak of Covid-19 cases linked to the White House.
"This Supreme Court nomination process is illegitimate and deliberately defies the will of the people," she added later on Twitter.
Senator Mike Lee appeared in person to deliver his remarks maskless despite announcing his Covid diagnosis 10 days earlier. A second Republican who tested positive, Thom Tillis, appeared remotely.
Faith and law
Democrats and their presidential candidate Joe Biden are demanding the nomination be left until after the election so Congress can focus on a huge stimulus package to help pandemic-stricken American families and businesses.
But Trump, trailing Biden in polls, is desperate for a swift confirmation.
Despite their opposition, Democrats are largely powerless to block Barrett, with Republicans holding 53 of the Senate's 100 seats.
Two Republican senators oppose a pre-election vote, but the party still has enough support for confirmation, and a final vote could come as soon as October 22.
Barrett, a practicing Catholic, is well regarded by conservative Christians, who share many of her values including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
In recent days, Barrett's affiliation to a small group of Catholics called the People of Praise, in which she reportedly held the title of "handmaid," has drawn particular attention.
The judge herself, known for her finely honed legal arguments, vowed to apply the law apolitically and keep her faith and legal judgment separate.
"Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life," Barrett said after raising her right hand and swearing to tell the truth.
"The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the people. The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try."
Her supporters argue she is the victim of liberal hostility toward religion in general.
'Eye on the ball'
But such assaults did not materialize Monday.
"I don't think there should be any questions about her faith," Biden weighed in.
Democrats instead should "keep our eye on the ball," Biden said en route to an Ohio campaign event. "This is about, in less than one month, Americans are going to lose their health insurance."
Democrats presented Barrett as a direct threat to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with several voicing concern her appointment was being rammed through in time for the court to hear a challenge to the law on November 10.
"The big secretive influences behind this unseemly rush see this nominee as a judicial torpedo they are firing at the ACA," charged Senate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.