WASHINGTON — Republicans powered Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett closer to confirmation Thursday, pushing past Democratic objections and other priorities during the COVID-19 crisis in the drive to seat President Donald Trump’s pick before the Nov. 3 election.
The Senate Judiciary Committee set Thursday for its vote to recommend Barrett’s nomination to the full Senate, with a final confirmation vote expected by month’s end.
“A sham,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “Power grab,” protested Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Not normal,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
“You don’t convene a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, in the middle of a pandemic, when the Senate’s on recess, when voting has already started in the presidential election in a majority of states,” declared Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Republicans eager to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg countered that Trump is well within bounds to fill the vacancy, and they have the votes to do it. Relying on a slim Senate majority, Trump’s Republicans are poised to lock a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he understands Democrats’ “disappointment.” He said, “Their loss is the American people’s gain.”
Barrett’s confirmation would bring the most pronounced ideological change on the court in 30 years, from the liberal icon Ginsburg to the conservative appeals court judge from Indiana. The shift is poised to launch a new era of court rulings on abortion, voting rights and other matters that are now open to new uncertainty.
The 48-year-old Barrett was careful during two days of public testimony not to tip her views on many issues, or take on the president who nominated her. Facing almost 20 hours of questions from senators, she declined to offer specifics beyond a vow to keep an open mind and take the cases as they come.
“It’s not the law of Amy,” the mother of seven told the senators at various times.
Barrett wasn’t present for Thursday’s hearing, the last of the week’s sessions as the coronavirus pandemic hangs over the country.
Stakes are high for all sides. Liberals pounced when top Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California hugged the chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as days of hearings closed, praising his handling of the process. They called for her immediate removal from leadership.
Among those testifying Thursday in support of Barrett’s nomination, retired appellate court Judge Thomas Griffith assured senators that Barrett would be among justices who “can and do put aside party and politics.”
But a coalition of civil rights groups opposed her nomination. Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights, said the judge’s unwillingness to speak forcefully for the Voting Rights Act and other issues should “sound an alarm” for Americans with a case heading to the high court.
“Our nation deserves a justice who is committed to preserving the hard-earned rights of all Americans, particularly the most vulnerable,” Clarke testified.
Trump’s Republican allies, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are reshaping the judiciary, having changed Senate rules at the start of the president’s term to allow 51 votes, rather than the traditional 60, to advance Supreme Court nominees. With a slim 53-47 majority, her confirmation is almost assured. Two Republican senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, are opposed to voting before the election, but no others objected. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Thursday he will vote to confirm Barrett. She would be Trump’s third justice on the high court.
A former Notre Dame Law School professor, Barrett would be the only one of her Supreme Court colleagues not groomed in the Ivy League. She had little courtroom experience when the Senate confirmed her to the federal bench in 2017, but quickly became a rising conservative star.
At the high court, she may be quickly called on, if confirmed, to consider the GOP-backed challenge to the Affordable Care Act in a case coming before the court Nov. 10, as well as any election-related challenges between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in the heated presidential campaign.
Trump has publicly stated he wants a justice swiftly seated for both situations. The president has said on Twitter he wants a justice who would rule differently than Chief Justice John Roberts, who helped preserve the law in previous cases. And he said he wants a justice in place for any disputes arising from the election, particularly concerning the surge of mail-in ballots expected during the pandemic.
Barrett frustrated senators during two days of public hearings by declining to disclose views on those matters, and many others, despite a collection of public statements and writings against abortion and the court’s decisions on the health care law.
She brushed past Democrats’ pressing questions about ensuring the date of next month’s election or preventing voter intimidation, both set in federal law, and the peaceful transfer of presidential power. She also refused to express her view on whether the president can pardon himself.
When it came to major issues that are likely to come before the court, including abortion and health care, Barrett repeatedly promised to keep an open mind and said neither Trump nor anyone else in the White House had tried to influence her views.
DES MOINES — Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield differed sharply Thursday about whether systematic racism exists and whether either had benefited from white privilege.
The two candidates joined for their final televised debate as thousands of Iowans were already voting by absentee ballot and the Nov. 3 election was less than three weeks away. The candidates spoke on numerous topics from remote locations, with Greenfield at an apprenticeship training facility in Altoona and Ernst in Washington.
The race is among the most expensive in the nation and could be a key to whether Republicans can retain control of the U.S. Senate.
The issue of systemic racism has come up in earlier debates as Ernst has argued that because Greenfield has professed her belief in systemic racism, the Democrat is saying police are racist. Ernst repeated that claim during Thursday’s debate.
Ernst said she doesn’t believe there is systematic racism in police departments, though she added that certain people are racist and the country has opportunities to do better.
“I believe that there are many challenges that we have in various systems but I would not say just broadly that we have systemic racism across the board,” Ernst said. “Certainly we have good people that are working in all career fields and I think it’s important to stress that.”
Greenfield rejected Ernst’s charge about her believing police are racist, calling it “insulting” and noting her father-in-law was in law enforcement. However, Greenfield said systemic racism has long been a problem in many U.S. institutions, including policing.
“Discussing systemic racism does not mean that any one individual is a racist but rather that we have to take a look at the discrimination across out systems — housing, health care, education, finance and so many other things to ensure we’re doing everything we can to end that kind of racism,” Greenfield said.
Greenfield said people who can’t acknowledge that systemic racism exists can’t take the lead in ending such practices.
The candidates were also asked about white privilege and whether as white women they had ever benefited from their race.
Ernst said she didn’t know if she had ever benefited from being white and that in Iowa the situation may be more about poverty than race.
“It goes back to maybe not racism but issues of poverty within our communities,” Ernst said.
Ernst noted, however, that when she began serving in the National Guard, she was part of a racially diverse system where the key to getting ahead was hard work.
Greenfield said she’s sure she has benefited from her race, noting that when her husband died she was a young mother, she survived thanks to Social Security benefits. She also noted the higher infant mortality rates for black women and wondered if the births of her children might have been different if she wasn’t white.
“We have to look at why that’s happening, what that discrimination is, where is the racial bias, be able to look ourselves and then make sure we’re investing in training to address that kind of racial bias in health care, in policing, in education, in the Social Security system, in lending and so many other things,” she said.
In response to questions about health care, Greenfield said she was committed to expanding the Affordable Care Act and adding a public options to increase competition and potentially reduce prices. She criticized Ernst for voting to end the ACA even as Republicans haven’t offered proposals to ensure millions of Americans won’t lose their health care.
Ernst said she was committed to ensuring health care isn’t denied to people because of pre-existing conditions, but she supports the repeal of the ACA because it expanded access without reducing costs.
Asked about whether the minimum wage should be raised, both candidates agreed that people couldn’t meet all family expenses if paid Iowa’s minimum wage of $7.25.
Greenfield said the minimum wage should be increased but even more important would be to invest in community colleges and other programs to ensure people can get jobs that pay far more.
“I support raising the minimum wage but I’ll tell you what I’m really focused on and that is making sure everyone has an opportunity to earn a living wage,” Greenfield said.
Ernst said the minimum wage is primarily for people just entering the job market and that the issue should be left to state and local governments.
“Economies are so very different across the United States and what might be right for California or New York simply may not be right for our rural communities in Iowa,” she said. “A living wage in San Francisco would be very different than a living wage in Red Oak, Iowa, or Waterloo, Iowa.”
WATERLOO — More than 80 Waterloo Water Works customers face potential water service disconnection for missed payments, according to data from the municipal utility.
They’re not alone in past-due utility payments.
A report from MidAmerican Energy shows more than 70,000 residential electric accounts in Iowa were past due as of early September. Additionally, there were nearly 62,000 past-due gas accounts. The revenue losses totaled more than $16.7 million, the report shows.
Chad Coon, Water Works general manager, said the utility hears from people who lost their jobs or whose income was otherwise impacted by COVID-19. He said they are shutting off water at up to 20 homes per day.
The utility stopped disconnections from March 16-Aug. 31. It now faces about $240,000 in lost revenue. That compares with $120,000 at the same time last year.
Coon said Water Works did not want to advertise its halt of disconnections because the utility “didn’t want it to be taken advantage of.” He said one customer called, found out about the halt in disconnections and then declined to pay his bill.
“The customer said, ‘Well, I have the money to pay the bill, but if you’re not going to come out and shut me off, I’m not going to pay you. I’m going to use the money for something else,’” Coon said.
Water Works considers payment plans for people who have strong payment histories and have income loss from COVID-19.
“At some point it has to turn around, and we do need to be paid to keep the water running,” Coon said. “There’s a lot of situations that are similar, but certainly there are always unique circumstances, and so it’s important that staff know that we have to empathize.”
MidAmerican issued more than 3,600 disconnection notices for electric customers and more than 2,800 notices for gas accounts as of early September, according to a report. Almost 500 residential properties were disconnected from either gas or electric service, though this could include Iowans who voluntarily ended their service.
“We take into account many different factors when determining if a customer will receive a disconnection notice,” MidAmerican spokesperson Geoff Greenwood said. “Those factors include length of service, how long an account has been past due, payment history, and other considerations.”
Greenwood said disconnection is “always the last resort” for the company, and less than 10% of customers are disconnected after receiving notices.
Year-long payment agreements with no down payment are offered to customers with past-due bills at MidAmerican, the company said in a report. The terms can be extended to 18 months if customers request smaller monthly payments. The company offers a second payment agreement for the same term if customers do not make timely payments under their first agreements.
MidAmerican reported that 430 residential customers entered into initial payment agreements for electric or gas services, and nearly 100 of these customers entered into second payment agreements with the company.
In its customer support plan, MidAmerican says it halted disconnections for nonpayment until late July. The company waived residential deposits and late fees for payments. MidAmerican said it would postpone disconnection for households where someone is infected with COVID-19.
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced last Friday a utility disruption prevention program, which can provide households with up to $2,000 for water, natural gas and electric bills. The program, funded by CARES Act funds, helps people who lost income during COVID-19 due to job loss, reduction in pay or fewer hours.
“For Iowans who lost their job or saw their paycheck shrink as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Residential Utility Disruption Prevention Program will help them keep the power on and their water running,” Gov. Reynolds said in a news release.
The state offered similar relief to small businesses beginning in mid-July. Prior to this residential relief program, MidAmerican was referring people to apply for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance, a federally funded program that makes one-time heat payments for people in need.
Coon said social services organization Operation Threshold was “phenomenal” in helping customers with past-due Water Works bills get caught up.
“Contact us. Don’t wait until the last minute,” Coon advised customers. “A phone call ahead of time and discussing your issue with the credit department will do a lot of good in the customer’s favor to help get a payment arrangement set up, to help discuss options and to give a little bit of time before the bill is due or past due, and then all of a sudden it’s now crunch time.”
CEDAR FALLS — The killing of black people by police across the nation in recent years has prompted changes in many department’s policies and in how officers are trained.
But speakers on a virtual panel Thursday hosted by the University of Northern Iowa suggested such efforts don’t always result in the desired shift in police behavior.
Participating in the panel were Joel Fitzgerald, Waterloo police chief; Gayle Rhineberger, UNI criminology professor; and Ryan Stevenson, local social justice activist and a congressional staff member for Rep. Abby Finkenauer. The diversity colloquium panel was part of UNI’s “Cultivating Justice: A 6-Week Quest Toward Racial Equity.”
Moderator Ashleigh Kysar-Moon, an assistant professor of sociology, said the colloquium started four years ago in response to “police brutality nationwide,” particularly the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She asked the panelists what has changed since.
“Honestly, to me, nothing,” said Stevenson, while noting the proliferation of cameras has ensured a growing number of incidents are filmed. He referenced the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“You can look at a police department like Minneapolis,” he said. Police brutality remains an issue “regardless of policy if the culture is still there.”
From the perspective of the police, Fitzgerald said, “you’ve seen so many leaders shy away and retire” rather than address problems. He acknowledged it takes courage to “come in and create a culture shift.”
Still, since 2015, he has seen new leaders across the U.S. who “change policy and back that policy with action.” The problems occur, Fitzgerald added, “when we get away from the core value of what our jobs entail.”
Rhineberger said that in some cases “a lot of lip service” and more conversations may give police departments the appearance of change. However, “policies don’t mean anything if they’re not adhered to with the heart.”
Training “does not change people’s hearts,” she asserted. “It’s actually a change that goes much deeper — how we raise people and how we talk about race.”
As a professor, Rhineberger said, during the last five years “I talk a lot more about implicit bias.” She urges students to reflect on their actions and challenges them to seek self-improvement daily. Racist attitudes won’t change “until our white population looks in the mirror.”
Fitzgerald said police officers need implicit bias training and the discomfort that confronting their own racist attitudes creates. He believes it works. It’s a “good investment,” he said, even if “we’re reaching a third of the people in a class.”
For Stevenson, the problems also go much deeper than the attitudes of a police force.
“It’s the trend or a fad to talk about policing,” he said. “But we can’t talk about policing without addressing the whole system.”
To deal with social justice concerns, Stevenson said “we have to talk about the whole oppressive system in the United State of America.”
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