The House, meanwhile, will continue to keep its distance from the Capitol, with only one committee scheduled as of Friday to hold an official hearing. Instead, lawmakers and staff are largely working from home as they try to craft the next trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package and monitor the trillions more that have been spent.
Capitol Hill’s split screen reflects the unique responsibilities of each chamber, the political imperatives of the opposing parties that control them and the differing personalities of their respective leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch Connell (R-Ky.).
“All across our nation, American workers in essential sectors are following expert advice and taking new precautions while they continue reporting for duty and performing irreplaceable work their country needs,” McConnell said in a statement Friday, placing lawmakers in that essential category.
Pelosi, meanwhile, said the House could be effective from afar — even without new rules in place to allow for remote committee hearings and voting. She said she would heed the advice of the congressional attending physician, Brian P. Monahan — who, she said, had warned about the rising trajectory of the pandemic in the Washington area, which thousands of congressional employees call home.
“It’s better to wait,” she told reporters Thursday, invoking the physician’s advice. “Now, what they advise the Senate, I don’t know. But they are 100 [members]; we’re four times that. . . . I just know what our responsibility is in the House.”
However, the debate over Congress’s role amid the pandemic — and whether it can be fulfilled from afar — has not broken down neatly along party lines. Other organs of the government and the private sector have adapted to the new normal, prompting criticism from some lawmakers that they are abdicating their responsibilities and ceding authority to the executive branch.
Some liberal Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have called for the House to follow the Senate’s lead, while some conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are calling for remote voting options to eliminate the need for in-person legislating.
On Thursday, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) became the first members of Congress to preside over an official “virtual hearing” — a meeting of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that convened three experts to discuss the necessity and feasibility of expanding remote operations across Capitol Hill.
“The message is that this can be done and it can be done successfully to enhance our ability to govern,” Portman said Friday. “People are figuring it out and it’s time for Congress to catch up.”
Meanwhile, the House is at loggerheads over changing its own practices to allow for remote hearings and a proposal to allow for proxy voting, whereby a member could authorize a colleague to cast a vote on his or her behalf. Pelosi said Thursday that she plans to move forward, but top Republicans have signaled firm opposition to that proposal and even to approving legislation in committee.
“People lend that power to their elected official, to their congresswoman or congressman, and they hold them accountable,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday. “They don’t lend their power to another member.”
Republicans argue that if Trump and Senate Republicans can work in Washington, so can the House.
McConnell’s decision to bring the Senate back after a five-week hiatus is in part rooted in the chamber’s unique constitutional power to confirm presidential appointees — and the powerful Kentuckian has made the installation of judicial nominees an especially high priority six months ahead of an election that will decide control of the White House and Senate.
A Wednesday confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee will start the process on the appeals court nomination of Justin Walker, a Kentucky-born protege of McConnell’s — a prospect that has infuriated many Democrats.
Walker, 37, was confirmed in October for a federal judgeship in western Kentucky despite being deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association over his lack of legal experience.
“The idea of bringing the Senate back into business to do some more right-wing court-packing is outrageous in this environment,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said Friday.
McConnell has repeatedly said his motto for the year is leave no vacancy behind.
Other Trump nominees are set to receive hearings this week, including White House lawyer Brian D. Miller, who is Trump’s pick to serve as a special inspector general overseeing trillions in coronavirus rescue funding, and Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), his choice for director of national intelligence. Confirmation hearings also are planned for nominees for Navy secretary, the Federal Election Commission and mid-level posts in the Defense Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The House, meanwhile, has no confirmation power, and it cannot unilaterally pass legislation. But it can use its oversight powers to shine a light on the administration, and many Democrats have urged Pelosi to do just that.
Three scheduled Senate hearings are set to delve into coronavirus-related topics, but they fall short for Democrats, who have called on McConnell to summon top Trump administration officials to testify on the federal coronavirus response.
Adding to the Democratic ire was the White House’s decision to block Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from appearing at a Wednesday hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing health agencies. Senate Democrats have also called for testimony from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Deborah Birx, leader of the White House coronavirus task force.
“The American people deserve to immediately hear from the administration’s top public health and economic officials,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Friday, calling it “shameful” the hearings won’t happen this week.
A senior administration official said Friday that Fauci and other officials would appear before Congress later in the month.
Besides the task of processing nominees, lawmakers are also keen to start work — and the necessary political posturing — on the next coronavirus rescue bill, one whose price tag could rival the $2 trillion Cares Act passed in March. Many Capitol veterans are convinced that the work of negotiating a bill of that size and intricacy will have to be done at least partly face-to-face.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said physical meetings would be “essential to our ability to come up and build consensus” on the next bill — which is already the subject of intense partisan disputes.
Hanging over the need to conduct oversight and process legislative business are the health concerns of not only lawmakers but the thousands who answer their phones, clean their offices and cook their food. Multiple cases of covid-19 have been confirmed among police officers and construction workers employed on the Capitol campus, and Pelosi and other Democrats have invoked the possibility of increased transmission as a reason to keep lawmakers away from the Washington region, which is under stay-at-home orders through at least May 15.
“We don’t want to become vectors for this virus,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “We don’t want to bring it home to our communities, to our families, to our staffs and to the traveling public. That could be disastrous.”
One day after Monahan told Senate staffers that tests would only be available for those with covid-19 symptoms, the Trump administration said late Friday it was supplying the attending physician with three rapid testing machines and 1,000 tests. Hours later, Pelosi and McConnell issued a rare joint statement declining the tests, saying they should be for those on the front lines of the pandemic.
Monahan issued a seven-page memo Friday setting out procedures for maintaining health and safety on the Capitol campus. The use of face masks is encouraged as “a service to the community to decrease the risk of infection overall” but not mandated so long as Hill denizens “can maintain the six-foot separation guidelines.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Thursday issued its own guidance to committees conducting hearings this week, encouraging senators to bring no more than one staffer and to wear a face mask at all times — even when speaking, noting that a “covering will produce minimal reduction in sound when using a microphone.”
Monahan’s guidance did not mention safety steps to protect the hundreds of other custodial, cafeteria and other blue-collar workers who have largely been home since late March.
On Thursday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) warned that those workers — many of whom, he noted, were minorities — would be putting themselves at risk: “We’re going to be pulling people [into the Capitol] against the rules of the city,” Booker said on a Thursday conference call organized by Senate Democrats.
The senators themselves are taking various precautions. At least one senator, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), plans to remain away from the Capitol this week for the safety of staff. A spokeswoman, Helen Hare, said Murray plans to return the following week, while her staff continues working remotely.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said his staff will continue working from home for the most part, with only one aide on campus at a time if necessary. Portman, like Romney, plans to wear a mask at the Capitol — and he is encouraging his fellow senators to follow his lead and consider holding remote hearings.
“We now know it can be done easily at your desk, and you don’t therefore put anybody at risk, including the staff and the Capitol Police and others who have to be there during a normal hearing,” Portman said. “So I think it’s an opportunity.”
Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.