Liberal groups erupted in anger after Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised the way Republicans ran last week’s confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and demanded that the senator be ousted as Democrats’ top member on the Judiciary Committee.
Ms. Feinstein wasn’t the only Democrat to compliment Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and committee chairman, but when she embraced him at the end of four days of hearings, it sent shock waves through the activist network that had spent weeks trying to gin up opposition to President Trump’s high court nominee.
Organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the feminist UltraViolet said Ms. Feinstein damaged those chances.
“Her embrace, both literal and rhetorical, of Lindsey Graham and Amy Coney Barrett after today’s hearings shows that she is simply not willing to stand up to the GOP’s depraved power grab that will upend the rights of women for decades to come,” UltraViolet co-founder Shaunna Thomas said after Thursday’s hearing-ending hug.
But activists said they expected more resistance than Democrats mounted over two days of questions to the judge, which she handled deftly, rebuffing attempts to get her to preview rulings on potential upcoming cases involving the Affordable Care Act or Mr. Trump’s executive powers.
The criticism is also seen as jockeying for next year, when Democrats hope to have control of the Senate, House and White House and an appetite to pack the Supreme Court with justices more aligned with their ideology.
Any move to add seats would likely start in the Judiciary Committee.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of the People for the American Way, praised Ms. Feinstein’s performance last week and said Democrats overall did a good job of reminding voters what is at stake in filling the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon.
“We are actually delighted with how the hearings have gone,” Ms. Baker told The Washington Times on Friday. “We think the Democrats really, really used their time effectively in the questioning and at yesterday’s markup.”
She said she has been involved with judicial nominations for several years and this is one of the times the American people are most energized and informed.
Ms. Feinstein, who has been in office 28 years, survived a reelection challenge in the 2018 Democratic primaries but has increasingly been a target of liberal activists in California.
In the run-up to the Supreme Court hearings, even some fellow Democratic senators were quoted, anonymously, in news reports wondering whether Ms. Feinstein was the right person to lead the party’s opposition.
During the hearings, she struck the same notes as her colleagues, suggesting that Judge Barrett would be part of an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case giving women a national right to abortion, as well as to gut Obamacare.
But Ms. Feinstein closed the hearings by thanking Mr. Graham and calling them “one of the best set of hearings I have participated in.”
“I want to thank you for your fairness and the opportunity of going back and forth. It leaves one with a lot of hopes, a lot of questions and even some good ideas — perhaps some good bipartisan legislation we can put together to make this great country even better,” she added.
“Thank you for your fairness in this hearing,” Mr. Durbin said, adding that he was speaking “on behalf of the Democratic side.”
“I heard no objection, nor will I, about the way you’ve conducted this,” he said.
He also apologized to the judge for the pain the nomination process can cause for families. Some liberal commentators have attacked Judge Barrett for adopting two children from Haiti.
Civility between the parties is rare on Capitol Hill with only three weeks before the Nov. 3 elections.
Though Democrats are angry that the Republican majority moved forward with Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee weeks before the election, the hearing was conducted respectfully between both sides.
“That means a lot to me, and I know we have very different views about the judge and whether we should be doing all of that, but having said that my Democratic colleagues, you have challenged the judge, you have challenged us,” Mr. Graham told Ms. Feinstein. “I don’t think anybody crossed the line.”
The hearings contrasted sharply with the 2018 dust-up over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was brought back for a second round of questions after a woman came forward with accusations of sexual assault during a high school party decades ago.
Justice Kavanaugh vehemently denied Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations, which were contradicted by people who she said were witnesses, though many Democrats said they believed the accuser nonetheless.
More than 200 protesters were arrested during the Kavanaugh hearings, and hundreds more were arrested on the eve of his confirmation vote.
Just 29 protesters were arrested during the Barrett hearings, according to U.S. Capitol Police.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the hearing room to the public, may have helped lower the temperature.
“People are really concerned about their own health and safety — wanting to be responsible, not doing large in-person gatherings,” Ms. Baker said.
Ms. Feinstein’s future may be wrapped up in other looming fights.
She brushed aside questions about court-packing in the run-up to the hearings and has said she is not a fan of eliminating the filibuster, the tool that has defined the Senate for a century.
Axing the filibuster is shaping up as a major goal for some Democrats if they take control of the chamber.
“Sen. Feinstein has said that the Senate works perfectly well and that she opposes eliminating the filibuster because ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ These hearings and this confirmation process highlighted just how wrong she is and just how broken the Senate is,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the group. “It’s time for a change and for committee leaders who understand what’s at stake and how the Senate needs to be fixed.”