The House decision, announced by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) on a Tuesday morning call with reporters, came less than a day after he told lawmakers to prepare to return to Washington on May 4. That plan prompted pushback from some Democrats, who saw it as an imprudent risk, especially with no new legislation ready for action.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday she had “no choice” but to heed warnings from Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, that bringing the chamber back for routine work after more than six weeks of limited operation would place lawmakers and support staff at heightened risk.
“If the Capitol physician says — recommends — that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance in the interest of the safety of the people who work here,” she said., adding, “It’s about safety. It’s about science.”
Monahan oversees health-care matters for both chambers of Congress.
Other organs of the federal government, including the White House and the Supreme Court, have adapted their core functions to life in a pandemic. The court, for instance, will hear oral arguments by teleconference for the first time in its history on Monday.
McConnell has chosen to accept the risk, bringing senators back for work starting with a Monday evening vote on Trump’s nominee for inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Two days later, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Justin Walker, a McConnell protege nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, declined to answer whether McConnell consulted with health officials on the decision to bring senators back.
McConnell said in a statement Monday that the Senate would “modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person.” He noted that he considers senators as essential as health-care providers, first responders, truck drivers and others who have continued doing their jobs during the crisis.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) called on Pelosi to bring the House back, too.
“If President Trump and Senate Republicans can be in Washington working safely, there’s no reason for House Democrats to prevent us from doing the same,” Scalise said in a statement.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with congressional operations, said Monahan raised alarms about the consistently rising infection reports in the Washington region during a Monday phone call with appropriators.
As of Tuesday, city officials had reported 3,998 confirmed coronavirus cases and 191 deaths of D.C. residents. Both figures have steadily increased in recent weeks. Maryland has reported more than 20,100 cases while Virginia has more than 14,300 cases.
“The numbers in the District of Columbia are going up, not down,” Hoyer said.
While lawmakers themselves may travel from less-affected areas, that is not true for the hundreds of essential workers on Capitol Hill. Ryan said a recent coronavirus outbreak among construction workers renovating the Cannon House Office Building raised fresh red flags about the safety of the campus.
“He basically said, ‘Look, this is about risk management, and I can assess the risk for you all,’ ” Ryan said, referring to Monahan. “But, you know, the leadership ultimately has to make that decision.”
Among the ideas under consideration to mitigate risk, Ryan said, was erecting tents outside the Capitol to conduct hearings.
The Senate’s constitutional power to solely confirm executive nominees distinguishes it from the House, which cannot legislate on its own. But the House, as the only arm of government under Democratic control, also holds unique ability at the moment to conduct oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic and distribution of nearly $3 trillion in federal relief funds.
That ability has been hamstrung, however, by long-standing House rules that require the physical presence of lawmakers in Washington to cast votes and hold official hearings. Frustrated Democrats have complained that by failing to adapt during the pandemic the House is abdicating its constitutional responsibility.
Democratic leaders proposed moving forward last week with a proxy voting arrangement that would allow members to authorize a colleague to cast votes in Washington on their behalf, as well as rules changes to allow for remote committee work. But Pelosi withdrew the plan after Republican leaders objected, and leaders of the two parties are now discussing a potential compromise.
“Inaction, however, is simply not an option,” House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who proposed the proxy-voting plan, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday. “The need to adapt is urgent. Experts have made clear that even if the crush of coronavirus lessens in the immediate future, this pandemic could come back even stronger in the fall. I don’t want to look back and wish we had made changes now.”
Pelosi and Hoyer said negotiations will continue this week, and both expressed hope that a bipartisan agreement might be reached. After the group held a virtual meeting Tuesday, Hoyer said the group was encouraging House committees to schedule virtual “roundtables” to test video conferencing platforms as it hammers out potential rules changes.
Other lawmakers questioned why the House couldn’t adopt the technology such as Zoom video conferences widely embraced by schools, local governments and the private sector.
“The past 48 hours of Democratic House Leadership saying we would be in session on Monday, and then canceling votes highlights the URGENT need to reimagine and modernize how Congress can safely continue to do our critical legislative, approps, & oversight work during this crisis,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) tweeted on Tuesday.
Rep French Hill (R-Ark.) said House debate and votes last Thursday “demonstrated that the Congress can be in Washington, follow CDC guidance and conduct its business on the House floor.”
Meanwhile, many logistical questions remain unsettled as the Senate plots its return. While McConnell has already moved to change procedures for floor votes, extending their duration and discouraging senators from loitering in the chamber, no such protocols are yet in place for committee meetings.
Senate Republicans plan to continue their usual conference policy lunches next week, where most of their 53 members gather several times a week to discuss strategy, according to Republican officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss deliberations. As lawmakers assembled the $2 trillion Cares Act last month, the meetings continued, albeit in a larger room. Among the attendees was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who later tested positive for covid-19, forcing some of his colleagues to self-quarantine.
Senate Democrats switched to a daily conference call instead and will continue doing so next week, a Democratic aide said. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pressed Republicans to use their time in Washington to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, holding hearings on the pace of coronavirus testing, the effectiveness of emergency lending programs and the confirmations of oversight officials.
“If we are going to be in D.C. with the coronavirus raging, it is critically important that we continue and actually ramp up our messaging and activities on the oversight front,” he told fellow Democrats Tuesday, according to a person on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are waging a similar protest, urging the panel’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), to postpone Walker’s May 6 confirmation hearing and instead hold sessions addressing pandemic issues under the panel’s jurisdiction, such as the circumstances of the virus among law enforcement personnel and in corrections facilities.
“[T]here is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture,” the Democratic senators wrote to Graham in a letter obtained by The Washington Post. “There is, however, considerable urgency — and growing public demand — for oversight of the federal government’s response to covid-19.”
Public health officials across the country have continued to recommend that all workers who have the option of working remotely do so.
Hoyer said that he expected committees to continue working remotely in the interim on the next coronavirus response and that lawmakers would be summoned back to Washington to vote on the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. He acknowledged that some House members expressed qualms about returning to Washington indefinitely without firm plans for the next bill.
“We will come back very soon,” he said.
Pelosi said she was not concerned that the House might be outmaneuvered on the next coronavirus relief package by dint of staying home while the Republican-led Senate is in session.
“We can’t be bothered about whether we’re disadvantaged to the Senate,” she said on a media conference call organized by the AFSCME union. “What we have to be bothered about is the health and safety of the workers in the Capitol of the United States as we do the work for the American people.”
Erica Werner contributed to this report.