The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Riven by politics, Congress struggles to calm nation and financial markets gripped by fear over coronavirus

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) exchanges an elbow bump, exhibiting caution amid coronavirus concerns, with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) exchanges an elbow bump, exhibiting caution amid coronavirus concerns, with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Congress is battling separate political instincts as it tries to calm the public over the spiraling health crisis and reassure the sinking financial markets that government can rescue a global economy gripped by fear.

Some leaders, particularly in the House, contend that the most immediate concern is a unified response showing that the federal government has set aside partisan bickering, even if it means quickly passing a more modest legislative package.

“I do believe that it is critical we get a small portion of this done right now. I think it helps give confidence,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters at a Thursday morning news briefing.

A few minutes later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment, calling suggestions from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “all very reasonable” ahead of day-long negotiations. Pelosi dismissed questions about shuttering the Capitol, despite a growing number of lawmakers and aides exposed to the novel coronavirus, until this economic packaged passes.

“We’re not planning a schedule or anything else, until we get that, until we get that done,” Pelosi said.

Two hours later, that sentiment met Senate Republican resistance. GOP senators want to slow things down and take another week to negotiate the final details on what some are calling a stimulus package. Republican senators, exiting a closed-door luncheon, professed that getting something right was more important than rushing through legislation that might not accomplish much.

“I think the markets are a lot smarter than Congress putting a Band-Aid on something,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said.

Congress in grip of confusion, fear over coronavirus unsure whether to stay or go

So, rather than waiting out the Pelosi-Mnuchin talks, the Senate voted at 1:45 p.m. to confirm a GOP nominee to an energy commission and left town.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left the Capitol before 2:30 p.m., not planning to return until Monday afternoon, with no chance for Congress to approve anything before global markets open Monday.

“The speaker is still negotiating with Mnuchin. The House hasn’t even sent a bill over and Leader McConnell sends everybody home during a crisis. That is so wrong,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

A few hours later, Schumer went to the Senate floor asking for unanimous approval of several Democratic bills designed to blunt the effect of the economic panic over the coronavirus. After GOP objections, Schumer relented and eventually left the Capitol for the weekend.

After learning that McCarthy boasted a deal could be finished within 48 hours, Pelosi said that it could come together even faster if all sides just understood the imperative of getting something done immediately to demonstrate continued bipartisan support, following last week’s overwhelming votes to approve more than $8 billion to help improve the health-care system’s ability to deal with the pandemic.

“So we don’t need 48 hours. We need to just make a decision to help families right now. We have to operate not as business as usual but in emergency status, where we have to get the job done,” she said.

The initial Democratic draft, released after 11 p.m. Wednesday, included provisions such as providing funds for people to get coronavirus tests, mandatory sick leave, extended unemployment insurance benefits and restructuring federal food programs so children whose schools close could still access meals.

Pelosi went about her Thursday trying to demonstrate bipartisan spirit as she oversaw the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar as the guest of honor. She recounted how, in 2000, Vardakar served as a congressional intern as part of an exchange program.

“Welcome home,” she said.

After recounting the “mean tour” he gave of the Capitol, Vardakar urged the congressional leaders to join a global fight against the pandemic. “We all have to work together,” Vardakar said.

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However, there was a missing presence that symbolizes Washington’s political dysfunction: President Trump. He is the first president to skip the politically symbolic lunch timed for St. Patrick’s Day since George W. Bush bowed out just days before starting the Iraq War in 2003.

Trump declined to go out of political pique following Pelosi’s rebellious action of tearing up his speech, on camera, after the president finished his State of the Union address last month.

That highly partisan speech, coming a day after the Senate concluded its three-week impeachment trial, set the tone for a government that is not in the best atmosphere for a unifying rally-around-the-flag response to a national crisis.

Pelosi led the congressional response to the financial meltdown in 2008, when markets crashed by then-record levels after the House failed on its first attempt to approve a bailout for Wall Street.

The lack of confidence in the government led to further market crashes, something Pelosi is trying to avoid.

“Right now, we have to find our common ground, work together to get this done as soon as possible,” she told reporters.

McCarthy also suggested the need to restore confidence was paramount, that division on bigger things could wait for future debates. “Remember, we are elected policymakers and leaders, this is our moment to show that we will rise to the occasion just as every other American believes we should,” he said.

But some Republicans objected to the duration of some of these programs and expressed concerns about whether the wording of a Medicaid provision would violate prohibitions against federal funding for abortion.

“Some of the stuff that’s being talked about in the House, those are big sweeping change,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said, predicting that Congress staying in session next week would help.

“The fact that Senate is coming back in session next week and not going into recess, I think is going to bring, I would expect, some calm and reassurance to folks,” Thune said.

Others said the focus should be taking the time to best help people directly affected by the virus and then work longer term on helping the economy.

“I don’t know that actions we take are going to calm markets. I think the markets recognize that there’s going to be disruption because of the coronavirus,” Romney said. “There are things we can do to help people who have health issues, and there are things we can do to help small businesses.”

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