Every minute they stay in session to do that, they are putting their own health at risk. More than a dozen lawmakers have self-quarantined after brushes with coronavirus and on Wednesday, two members of Congress announced they had tested positive after interacting with fellow lawmakers.
Yet any delay would put Americans’ lives and livelihoods at risk. There is no way to fully do what health officials are calling for — social distancing — while passing legislation.
There has been a bipartisan effort to get all this done as quickly as possible, but politics is also creeping in and delaying action. Here’s what’s going on and why Congress probably isn’t leaving town anytime soon.
The Senate voted Wednesday on legislation the House of Representatives finalized Monday night to authorize sick leave protections and free coronavirus protections, among other protections for workers.
The bill was crafted by Democrats in close concert with the White House. McConnell told his colleagues to just pass it even though there are policies they don’t like. “My counsel to them is to gag and vote for it anyway, even if they think it has some shortcomings,” he said Tuesday, “and to address those shortcomings in the bill that we’re in the process of crafting.”
But before voting on that House bill, McConnell agreed to allow the Senate to vote on an amendment Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is pushing to, in part, require a Social Security number for anyone getting a child tax credit. That could take up to an hour or more as lawmakers try to vote in groups under 10, per the Trump administration health guidelines.
Democrats slammed Republicans for allowing an amendment vote: “In a time of national emergency, this Republican amendment is ridiculous,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday morning. “A colossal waste of time.”
Paul’s amendment failed, but it underscored that even in a time of crisis, the Senate is not the place for speed: The chamber is set up so any one lawmaker can slow down or delay a vote. If Paul wanted to, he could filibuster the whole aid package.
Democrats have also criticized McConnell and Senate Republicans for taking their time to pass this legislation.
McConnell sent his senators home over the weekend as the House passed that bill. But given that the House was making last-minute changes to the bill (like allowing employers to exempt some workers from paid sick leave) until Monday night, it wouldn’t have mattered. A senior Senate GOP aide said that even if they had been in session all weekend, the Senate didn’t get the bill until Monday.
After this aid package passed, McConnell said the Senate will stay in session to pass an even bigger one: Some $1 trillion that could include bailouts for everyone from regular Americans to the airline industry. Since the House of Representatives is out of session right now, Senate Republicans are taking the lead on writing that. “We’re going to move here in warp speed for the Senate, which almost never does anything quickly,” McConnell said Tuesday.
Democrats accused McConnell of negotiating first within the Republican caucus, and then bringing it to Democrats to discuss. Some Republicans see this as their opportunity to be seen as the party that’s taking the lead on helping Americans — an arguably petty way of looking at this that could slow things down. But Republicans control a slim majority in the Senate, so it also makes sense that McConnell would want to prioritize getting half the Senate on board rather than all 100 members.
And then you get to policy disagreements, which are widespread on a package this big: Should Congress give Americans a $1,000 check, or is that not enough? “A single $1,000 check would help someone pay their landlord in March,” Schumer said Wednesday, “but what happens after that?”
And the really controversial part of this legislation will be how much money, if any, to give airlines or hotels or tourism-related industries, all on the front lines of a halted U.S. economy. Some Senate Democrats are expressing concern about bailing out large corporations rather than the average worker.
And even if the Senate can come to an agreement quickly on how to best inject the American economy with $1 trillion (more than the 2008 bank bailout), Congress is only halfway done.
The House needs to pass the bill before Trump can sign it. And right now, House lawmakers are out of session, largely back in their districts, raising real safety questions about how they get back to vote. The average age of a member of Congress is 60; having them fly back to Washington and congregate in groups — even small ones — is a risk. After that, many of them would fly home, again dispersing across the country.
Congress has no way to vote remotely. Another option: Could House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) get everyone to just agree, by a procedure called unanimous consent, to approve this bill? That would be extremely difficult.
All this is to say, Congress is putting itself and its constituents at risk by not going home — but they have little choice but to stay.