Back in session: Senate to reopen Monday amid coronavirus risk, House stays away
WASHINGTON — The Senate will reopen on Monday as the coronavirus crisis rages and the House stays shuttered, a risky strategy that leaves Congress as divided as the nation.
It’s a politically and physically fraught move by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, convening 100 senators at the U.S. Capitol during a pandemic. The Senate’s return gives President Donald Trump the imagery he wants of America getting back to work, despite the health risks.
But with the Washington, D.C., region still under stay-at-home orders as a virus hot spot, senators face exposing themselves to the virus and putting at risk all of the cooks, cleaners, cops and others who serve them lunch and keep the lights on at the Capitol complex.
Until a last-minute intervention on Saturday by President Trump, the Senate had no access to an instant virus test system like that used to screen visitors to the White House.
For Senate Republicans it’s an attempt to set the terms of debate as Democrats push for another pricey coronavirus relief bill. Frustrated after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi boosted Democratic priorities in earlier aid packages, an unprecedented $3 trillion in emergency spending, they are resisting more. Republicans are counting on the country’s reopening and an economic rebound as their best hope to limit a new round of big spending on virus aid.
As the Senate gavels in and the 430-member House stays away on the Capitol physician’s advice, the Congress provides a snapshot of a divided America struggling to confront the COVID-19 crisis. In the states, some are reopening, others are staying closed and questions abound.
Senators face few new rules for operating in the pandemic beyond the recommendations that they wear masks — blue face coverings will be available for free — keep their distance and leave most staff at home. Hand sanitizer is back in stock. But public access will be limited, including at public hearings. The Capitol itself remains closed to visitors and tours.
Democrats complain they are returning to a noticeably light agenda, packed with confirmation hearings for President Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominees, but with little emphasis on the pandemic and Great Depression-level economic collapse.
“Democrats are going to fight like hell,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on a conference call with Latino leaders. “We’re going to make sure people have enough money to live and get back on their feet.”
In making his snap decision to return, McConnell said the Senate cannot “sit on the sidelines.” He compared the senators to the essential workforce of grocery clerks, truck drivers and others keeping Americans fed during the crisis.
But Capitol Hill erupted after the attending physician, facing questions from top GOP officials earlier in the week, said the health office did not have the means to perform instant virus tests on returning lawmakers.
On Saturday, President Trump stepped in.
“There is tremendous CoronaVirus testing capacity in Washington for the Senators returning to Capital Hill on Monday,” President Trump tweeted, flagging the note to his chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Ninety minutes later, Health Secretary Alex Azar tweeted that the administration would be sending three machines and 1,000 virus tests to Capitol Hill.
The haphazard approach — to testing, health guidelines and the broader reopening — is what Democrats say is inadequate in the Republican response to the crisis.
“If we’re going to go back, let’s do something about COVID,” Schumer said.
With more than 65,000 U.S. deaths due to the virus and 30 million Americans suddenly unemployed, Democratic senators say the focus needs to be singular — to ease this crisis and prevent a second wave of infections.
Instead, the agenda is focused on the president’s nominees. Among them is Justin Walker, a conservative, McConnell-backed pick to be a federal judge on the U.S. Courts of Appeal in the District of Columbia Circuit, which is seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
“It has nothing to do with COVID,” Schumer said.
A nomination hearing also is scheduled for John Ratcliffe, the Texas Republican congressman who is President Trump’s choice to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Several committees will meet to debate issues related to the virus outbreak, including the Oversight Committee. The Health Committee will hold a session on potential cures and the Commerce Committee a hearing on the airline industry.
Yet as much as the world has changed during the global pandemic, the Senate remains a place of traditions.
Republican senators still plan to sit down for their regular luncheons, though the physician’s social distancing guidance limits them to three to a table. It was after one of their lunches in March that several senators went into self-quarantine because of their exposure to fellow GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who tested positive.
Democrats, who will meet for lunch over conference call, are assessing whether to appear in person for the committee hearings or dial in remotely.
The physician’s office sent guidelines late Friday encouraging Senate offices to minimize staff presence and reschedule any visitors who are visibly ill with “shaking chills” or “vomiting.”
Politically, operating the Senate even in a diminished capacity aligns with President Trump’s effort to return to a sense of normalcy.
It also draws a stark contrast with Pelosi’s House, which is only holding scattered committee hearings, its return date uncertain. President Trump has mocked House Democrats as enjoying a “vacation.”
Republicans worry that support for President Trump is drifting as he responds to the coronavirus, a drag on the GOP that threatens McConnell’s majority. Confronting his own reelection in fall, McConnell is eager to show the Senate is working.
Drawing GOP senators back to Washington, McConnell can more directly involve them in the new round of deliberations.
“I look forward to seeing my colleagues on Monday,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to stand together for the American people — even as we stand six feet apart.”