WASHINGTON — During Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing Monday, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono told the story of how she came to be diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer.
On April 7, 2017, the same day the Senate voted 54-45 to confirm Neil Gorsuch to a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hirono’s doctors performed an x-ray of her chest before a routine eye surgery.
They discovered a shadow that later turned out to be cancer.
“My diagnosis came as a total shock, and I am grateful it came when there was still time,” Hirono said. “I still have cancer, but I don’t need any treatment right now.”
Hirono’s anecdote was part of a larger strategy by Democrats to tie Barrett’s confirmation to the demise of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, that provides millions of Americans with health insurance.
Opponents say if Barrett takes a seat on the high court she will be the deciding vote to finally overturn the law after years of failed attempts by Republicans in Congress.
Such a decision, they say, would be especially catastrophic during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that so far has sickened nearly 7.8 million people in the U.S. and claimed the lives of more than 215,000.
The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in a case involving Obamacare soon after the Nov. 3 election, and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he intends to hold a full confirmation vote before the election.
Barrett has already made her skepticism of the law clear, and President Donald Trump, who nominated her to the Supreme Court, has boasted of his desire to assign justices to the court who could help Republicans abolish Obamacare and possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion.
Trump nominated Barrett to the court on Sept. 26, one day after the associate justice she’s supposed to replace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, became the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Hirono said Monday that without insurance the cost of her cancer treatment, which included removing a kidney, replacing part of one of her ribs with a 7-inch titanium plate and two years of “cutting edge” immunotherapy, would have been enormous.
“I’m not special or unique, serious illness can hit anyone unexpectedly,” Hirono said. “When it does, no one should have to worry about whether they can afford care that might save their life.”
The diagnosis wasn’t the only personal story Hirono shared during Monday’s Judiciary Committee hearing. She also talked about her relationship with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is the chairman of the committee.
After Hirono was diagnosed with cancer, she said many of her colleagues, including Republicans, wrote her heartfelt notes wishing her well and letting her know they were thinking about her. Graham’s concern, she said, continues to this day.
When the cameras are off and the senators find themselves sharing a private moment, such as in the capitol elevator, Hirono said Graham never fails to check in on her health.
“Mr. Chairman, you and I have had our pointed disagreements over the years — particularly during our time together on this committee — but your concern means a lot to me,” Hirono said. “Moments when we recognize our shared humanity are rare in Congress these days, but this can and should be one of those moments.”
“This can be a moment, Mr. Chairman, for you and your Republican colleagues to show the American people, who are terrified about losing their health care, the same care and compassion you showed me and continue to show me when I was diagnosed with cancer instead of rushing to jam another ideologically driven nominee onto the Supreme Court in the middle of an election when over 9 million Americans have already voted.”
She then went on to call Barrett’s confirmation hearing “hypocritical and illegitimate” no doubt in reference to Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016 when he was picked by then-President Barack Obama to replace Antonin Scalia, who had died in February.
For his part, Graham side-stepped Hirono’s concerns and instead focused on her illness.
“It’s not just me, I think everybody on this committee and everybody that knows you knows you’re passionate about your causes,” Graham said. “We have a lot of political differences. But all of us are very encouraged to hear that you’re doing well and we’ll keep praying for you. You’re an asset to the Senate.”
“I appreciate that, thank you,” Hirono responded. “Do the right thing.”
Those were the same four words — “Do the right thing” — that Hirono spoke to McConnell in 2018 after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations involving then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Hirono and others demanded McConnell hold a hearing to allow Ford to tell her story.
The hearing took place but the results didn’t change the outcome. Kavanaugh is now an associate justice on the high court.
There’s no expectation the results will be different this time around with Barrett. Republicans appear to have the votes to confirm her despite the protestations of Democrats.
Even Graham, who said in 2016 that a high court nominee should not be considered in an election year — he even challenged his opponents to “use my words against me” — admitted at Monday’s hearing the decision was all but preordained.
“This is probably not about persuading each other unless something really dramatic happens,” Graham said. “All Republicans will vote yes and all Democrats will vote no and that will be the breakout of the vote.”
Barrett’s confirmation hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday when senators are expected to question her about her record and her legal philosophy.
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