Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation hearings begin, despite coronavirus risk

Senator Kamala Harris says hearing should have been postponed after recent spate of infections

epa08738741 Judge Amy Coney Barrett attends first day of her Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 12 October 2020.  EPA/ERIN SCHAFF / POOL

The risk of Covid-19 hung over Monday's opening of Amy Coney Barrett's US Supreme Court confirmation hearings, with the Senate hearing room including her children and at least one politician who tested positive.

President Donald Trump formally nominated Ms Barrett at a packed White House ceremony on September 26.

Days later, Mr Trump and several White House advisers tested positive for the respiratory disease that has killed almost 220,000 people in the US.

Senator Kamala Harris, a judiciary committee member and the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket challenging Mr Trump in the November 3 election, said the hearing should have been postponed after the recent spate of infections.

Republican Senator Mike Lee, one of two Senate judiciary committee members to test positive, attended the hearing in person on Monday.

"I feel great," Mr Lee, wearing a blue surgical mask, said as he entered the hearing room on Monday, nine days after disclosing his positive test, which normally would mean a quarantine period of 10 to 14 days.

Mr Lee took off his mask to deliver his opening statement to an audience that included some of the oldest members of the Senate, and Ms Barrett's husband, children and siblings.

Democrats and many public health experts have condemned Mr Trump for his handling of a pandemic that has killed more people in the US than any other country.

Ms Harris, who spoke by videolink, said the panel had been reckless as Republicans moved to confirm Ms Barrett before the election.

"This committee has ignored common-sense requests to keep people safe – including not requiring testing for all members – despite a coronavirus outbreak among senators of this very committee," she said.

Mr Trump's nomination of Ms Barrett to replace the late liberal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg just weeks before the election enraged Democrats.

The Republicans had refused to consider a nominee from Democratic president Barack Obama about 10 months before the 2016 election.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee's Republican chairman and a close ally of Mr Trump, insisted that enough had been done to protect those at the hearing.

"We've set up a room in a fashion where we can safely do our business," Mr Graham said.

His Senate re-election debate was cancelled on Friday after he refused to be tested for coronavirus.

Opinion polls show that Mr Graham is in a tight race to win a fourth term as a South Carolina senator.

He said he had been tested a week before the debate, repeating that every safety precaution had been taken.

"I'm not going to be told to be tested by political opponents," Mr Graham said.

"I'm going to be tested as an individual when the CDC [US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] requires it."

The other Republican committee member to test positive after the September 26 event, Thom Tillis, was not at the hearing.

Mr Tillis had announced that he would be among senators taking part online on Monday, but was expected to appear in person later in the week.

Ms Barrett removed her mask at least once while Mr Lee was speaking, to take a sip of water.

The vast hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building is the largest in the sprawling Capitol complex, where 20,000 people work and thousands more visit on a normal weekday.

Ms Barrett's children were also at the September 26 event.

The Indiana private school they attend reported less than two weeks after the Rose Garden ceremony that at least two pupils and a teacher had tested positive.

The Washington Post  reported Ms Barrett tested positive this year but has since recovered.

The White House has declined comment.