Kavanaugh hearing a test for Sen. Cory Booker in new role

Listen 6:24
(From left), Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., arrive at the Capitol for a procedural vote on an appropriations measure, in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

(From left), Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., arrive at the Capitol for a procedural vote on an appropriations measure, in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Since the day in July when Judge Brett Kavanaugh was tapped for a U.S. Supreme Court seat, the confirmation hearings starting Tuesday have consumed the lives of Senate Judiciary Committee members.

For U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, preparation has meant hiring more staff to help pore over more than 400,000 pages of documents provided to the committee. When he recently hopped a plane to campaign for a fellow Democrat in Nevada, he carried a book bag loaded down with reading material on the nominee.

“We’re preparing for this like everything is at stake and trying to make sure that that limited time that I have to engage with the nominee is used as effectively as possible to bring out the issues that I hope Americans will focus on,” said Booker.

He was appointed to the committee in January, so this will be his first Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Booker has said he’s very concerned with Kavanaugh’s past statements that seem to suggest he doesn’t think a sitting president can be indicted — but his list of concerns doesn’t end there.

Among them are “protections on pre-existing conditions and elements of the Affordable Care Act … being able to marry who you want to marry, voting rights, the power of corporations in America,” Booker said.

Booker said he will be looking for answers from the nominee on those issues.

Although Democrats are in the minority and don’t have any procedural means to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Booker said he’s not discouraged. Pointing out that his party helped  defeat the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare, he predicted a loud enough public outcry could also block Kavanaugh.

“You had three Republican senators flip, and I think that was a driving force — the activism and engagement of Americans,” Booker said of the effort to preserve the Affordable Care Act.

Breaking with tradition

But driving that engagement doesn’t always endear a senator to fellow lawmakers. Booker turned heads when he became the first sitting senator in history to testify against a colleague when he formally urged voting down Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general.

Although South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham likes Booker, he said he didn’t like that departure from precedent.

“I don’t think it’s his finest moment. It’s a further step in the wrong direction,” Graham said.

Another member of the judiciary committee, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas – the No. 2 Senate Republican — called it a political move.

“It looks to me like he’s got his sights set on 2020, and doing what he feels he needs to do to be a contender,” Cornyn said.

Much of what Booker does is seen by many pundits as laying the groundwork for a White House run in 2020. Those same analysts will be dissecting Booker’s questions to Kavanaugh, looking how he performs with the whole country watching.

Booker brushed aside the criticisms and questions about a bid for the presidency. He likens testifying against Sessions to how he’s preparing to question Kavanaugh this week.

“I’m very proud of that, and I think that was a similar moral moment,” Booker said of his stance of Sessions.

In part, he said, that’s because everything he predicted about the attorney general has come true.

“I knew exactly what he would do, and I said it in my remarks, and it’s happened already,” Booker said. “And so sometimes in life it’s not about the outcome and winning. It’s about saying, ‘I will not be silent. I will not sit on the sidelines when what I believe is injustice is happening, and I’m going to speak up,’ ” he said.

Bipartisan thumbs up

Even though Booker ruffled feathers by breaking Senate tradition, many Republicans like and respect him.

“He’s very ambitious, but at times he seems pretty rational. Very rational,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

“I think he’s smart enough to know that maximizing relationships is finding where your sweet spot is in terms of working together,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

“He’s a very personable, likable individual, and you can see why he’s been successful in politics,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

Democrats see Booker as a rising star. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, also on the judiciary committee, said, with Booker, what you see is what you get.

“One of the things I really value about our friendship and our working relationship is that Cory is someone who is every bit as funny and engaging and warm as he is capable at being sharp, focused and purposeful,” Coons said. “He’s a rare senator, and he’s been a terrific addition to the judiciary committee.”

Booker is now the top Democrat on the Africa subcommittee, and Coons said in spots like that — where there’s no national coverage — is where Booker really shines.

“Look, that’s not glamorous work. It’s not going to help you in Iowa or New Hampshire. I’m just throwing out one of several examples of ways in which I think Cory is doing the job — fighting for New Jersey, showing up at the Senate, doing his work here, rather than being … distracted by the prospects of 2020,” Coons said.

Ready for the spotlight

As for this week’s confirmation hearings, the spotlight will be on Booker and other potential 2020 White House aspirants. But the former mayor of Newark said he’s not focused on the cameras.

“These coming days will have a consequence on American history that will be felt for generations to come, and I have to do the best in this moment to perform my job, which is spelled out in the Constitution,” he said.

And as one of the newer and younger senators questioning Kavanaugh, Booker knows his time to press the nominee will come near the end of the hearings. So he’s planning accordingly and is ready to scrap some of what he’s prepared if his more senior colleagues fail to ask certain questions or don’t get suitable answers from the nominee.

“So I think there will be a lot of cleanup for those of us, as I am, the penultimate person in seniority,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.