WASHINGTON – Top Republican leaders said Wednesday they want Congress to return to business as usual amid the coronavirus pandemic – in effect bringing hundreds of lawmakers, aides and support staff back to Capitol Hill despite the warnings of public health officials that reopening parts of the country too soon could cause a spike in the deadly disease.
The calls from prominent members of both the House and Senate echo rhetoric from conservative activists and some GOP governors who have advocated loosening social distancing guidelines after weeks of lockdowns and the disease’s devastating toll on the economy.
Republicans said a largely shuttered Congress was abdicating its constitutional responsibility in the face of the most massive crisis in generations.
“Congress is essential,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters, asserting that social distancing and sanitation measures could keep those on Capitol Hill safe. “The American public needs to see that we’re working. The American public has to understand that we could do it in a safe manner, so states and others could begin to open, as well.”
The pressure to reopen comes as Congress prepares to add another $484 billion in rescue spending this week to the more than $2 trillion it has already enacted over the past two months.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a radio interview that he was ready to reconvene the full Senate on May 4 – before a stay-at-home order for Washington expires May 15.
“I haven’t seen anything that would discourage me from doing that,” he told conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt. “And as soon as we get back in session, we’ll start confirming judges again. We need to have hearings, and we need to confirm judges.”
Meanwhile, Republican objections in the House helped scuttle an initial step toward remote legislating this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., postponed plans to temporarily institute proxy voting on the House floor, which would have allowed members to designate colleagues from afar to cast votes on their behalf.
Democratic congressional leaders have taken a much more cautious tack, arguing both that the health and safety of members and others on Capitol Hill is paramount and that Congress has a responsibility to set a good example for the nation.
“It’s not just about us. It’s about the staff. It’s about the press. It’s about the security and about those who run the building,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday. “We care about them, but we also care about the people they go home to, their children in families, as well.”
At the same news conference, where he stood several feet away from Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the congressional schedule should be “governed by the medical experts.”
“We set an example,” he said. “So if we were to come back prematurely . . . that’s a bad thing.”
Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, raised multiple red flags in an interview Wednesday. The Washington region does not currently have the testing and contact-tracing capacity to support the loosening of restrictions, she said, and the nature of the Capitol and the work of legislating stands to heighten the risk of covid-19 transmission, even with precautions.
The overall tally of known coronavirus infections in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia climbed to 28,295 on Wednesday. There were a total of 1,185 known deaths.
Goldman urged congressional leaders to think carefully about protecting the health and safety of aides, visitors and members themselves before plotting a return.
“Many of them are over the age of 60. Many of them themselves probably have chronic medical conditions,” Goldman said. “It’s one thing to say, well, our nation needs to bring them together so they can see each other and deliberate. . . . But if they become ill or end up having to be isolated, then that could have a very serious impact on our government, and I think that needs to be considered as well.”
At least six members of the House and Senate have tested positive for the disease, with Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, hospitalized for eight days.
In a bid to strike a balance between safety and the need for Congress to conduct legislative business, Pelosi last week endorsed a proxy voting arrangement proposed by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass. Members unable or unwilling to travel to Washington could designate a colleague to cast their votes for them as specifically authorized in writing. The arrangement would be temporary and specific to a “pandemic emergency” as declared by the House sergeant-at-arms.
Democrats hoped to push through a rules change allowing for proxy voting while House members were in Washington on Thursday for the vote on the $484 billion relief bill, which passed the Senate by voice vote Tuesday. But Pelosi abandoned that plan Wednesday morning after a conversation with McCarthy, according to a senior Democratic aide and McCarthy’s account.
Instead, Pelosi told fellow House Democratic leaders on a conference call that the issue would be closely studied by a bipartisan group led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and McCarthy.
Pelosi, D-Calif., had said in public comments this month that any rules change allowing for remote work would have to be strictly bipartisan, but Democrats over the past week moved forward with a proxy voting arrangement without securing consent from Republicans. McGovern released text of the proposal early Wednesday ahead of the expected Thursday vote – prompting immediate objections from Republicans who said they were not closely consulted, despite Pelosi’s public assurances of bipartisanship.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., the senior Republican member of the House Administration Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that Democrats “cut us out of the process” in a rushed attempt to, in his view, consolidate the power of Pelosi and her deputies.
“This was the Democrats’ attempt to try and use this emergency to change 200 years of history,” he said, noting that House Republicans eliminated proxy voting on the committee level in 1994 due to abuses by Democratic chairmen.
The McGovern proposal would not allow members to assign a general proxy, as in the past, where chairmen used proxy authority to wield unfettered power. Instead, lawmakers would have to authorize each discrete proxy vote.
But Davis, like many other GOP lawmakers, made another appeal for Congress to physically show up: Millions of other Americans – like his wife, a nurse – are doing their jobs in hazardous conditions during the pandemic.
“They come home, and they don’t quarantine themselves for 14 days after they go to work each day. They practice good hygiene. They follow the proper procedures, and they stay safe,” he said. “Why can’t Congress do the same?”
That battle cry took flight on the Senate floor Tuesday, during the brief debate over the new relief bill.
“This should be our duty station, working around-the-clock for people we represent, getting through these unprecedented times, being able to address challenges as they arise – and they are arising every hour, every minute,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said, calling for Congress to reopen.
Sullivan dismissed concerns about the coronavirus spreading, saying careful measures could be taken to allow for social distancing: “We have heard about the difficulties that could come with voting and having members of Congress catch covid-19, but we can do this safely. We can vote safely.”
McCarthy made similar points Wednesday, noting that members voting on the relief bill Thursday will be staggered into nine groups to avoid close physical encounters on the House floor. He suggested that going forward, the House could operate with a skeleton crew consisting of members of key committees remaining in Washington to work, while others stayed in their home districts.
Standing near McCarthy was Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican leader, who late last month warned that it could be months before Americans – and the House – could return to work, saying in an interview that she was being “realistic about what the future holds.”
On Wednesday, Cheney struck a different tone: “Great nations are not paralyzed by sickness. Together we have a job to do, and it’s a job that includes ensuring that this never happens again. And it’s a job that we in Congress must be convened to do.”
The first committee hearing in almost six weeks convened Wednesday evening, of the House Rules Committee, with most of its 13 members on hand. After a fierce debate, the panel approved the framework for Thursday’s debate on the creation of a 12-member select committee to oversee the trillions of dollars spent on the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than the tiny room the panel uses on the third floor of the Capitol, the Rules Committee convened in an expansive hearing room in one of the office buildings.
Lawmakers sat far away from each at a massive dais, usually reserved for the Ways and Means Committee, with Republicans and Democrats alike donning masks. Some wore gloves, including Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.