This week: Senate returns amid coronavirus pandemic

The Senate will return to Washington, D.C., on Monday, even as the city remains under a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus. 

It will be the first time all senators are set to go back to the Capitol since late March, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer tees up key Thursday vote on debt deal House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) started a previous two-week recess a week early and then extended it for another two weeks. 

When the Senate was last in session, lawmakers huddled together on the floor, made jokes with each other and reporters about social distancing and none wore masks, even after several staffers and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill White House 'strongly opposes' Senate resolution to stop Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) tested positive. 

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Their return is expected to be starkly different as lawmakers, their staff and reporters around the Capitol try to adjust to social distancing and other safety measures meant to try to curb the spread of the virus but also change day-to-day working life in the nation’s capital. 

“I don't think we're going to reopen the Capitol to visitors to be sure, and I think we're each going to try to make decisions about how our … offices and how the support staff functions,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Senate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill MORE (R-Texas) told reporters. 

While the Senate is in session, the House remains out of town. House Democrats canceled their plans to return, citing a warning from the attending physician that it was not safe. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Ocasio-Cortez: 'Embarrassment' that Democratic leaders are delaying Boebert punishment Overnight Health Care — Biden mandate faces Dem resistance MORE (D-Calif.) said they could come back as soon as next week, but the return date isn’t locked in. 

McConnell has not said if he received a similar warning. Washington, D.C., is under a stay-at-home order until at least May 15 and restrictions on access to the Capitol, including a suspension of tours, are in place through that date.

The Capitol's attending physician sent coronavirus recommendations to senators and staffers on Friday outlining best practices including recommending — but not requiring — the use of face masks. 

"Use of a face covering is voluntary unless required by specific Agency policy, and should be promoted at all times. Use of a face covering while in the office has the additional advantage of serving as a source control to minimize virus in the workplace environment and contributes to the cleaning process efficiency," Brian Monahan, the attending Capitol physician, wrote in the guidance, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill.

He added that "individuals retain the option of not using a face cover if they can maintain the 6-foot separation guidelines." But he noted that the Capitol Police "will not take enforcement actions regarding face coverings."

Staffers are expected to do a temperature and health check every day before coming to the Capitol and Monahan is recommending a myriad of social distancing measures including capping the number of people who can be in a room, encouraging remote working, staggering lunch times and avoiding communal spaces. 

While Senate Republicans are expected to keep meeting for their caucus lunches, albeit in a larger room to allow for social distancing, Democrats are expected to do most of their meetings by conference call. 

McConnell has defended the decision to bring the Senate back, saying that they can resume their work in person “safely.” 

“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. Starting Monday, the Senate will do the same,” McConnell said in a statement late last week, adding that senators could “stand together for the American people — even as we stand six feet apart.”

But the decision has infuriated Democrats, who have warned that he is risking the health of his fellow colleagues and workers in the Capitol. The threat of an outbreak of the coronavirus within the Capitol is particularly relevant given the average age of senators is 62. 

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinBiden administration seeks review of Trump-era approval of water pipeline What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates MORE (D-Calif.), who is 86 and the oldest senator, urged McConnell to change his mind about bringing the Senate back into session this week. 

"I ask the majority leader to reconsider his plan to reconvene the Senate. He would bring 100 senators and many more staff members and reporters into close proximity while Washington itself remains under a stay-at-home order. There is no way to do this without increased risk. This is the wrong example for the country," Feinstein said in a statement. 

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenReal relief from high gas prices Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama MORE (D-Md.) also sent a letter to McConnell warning that "without effective safeguards in place" the Senate GOP leader is "endangering the lives of the staff who work there."

"This is unacceptable. We need details now on how he plans to protect staff across the Capitol complex and our region from the spread of COVID-19," Van Hollen added.

But McConnell has faced growing calls from various factions within his caucus to return to Washington after lawmakers, aside from a core group of leadership and their staff, were largely sidelined in negotiations over the most recent coronavirus package. 

“I think we also need to demonstrate that we're not afraid to come here and debate the great questions of the day, we've spent a lot of money trying to address this crisis and I think by and large, it's been it's been pretty good but obviously there are, things that we've now discovered we need to come back and fix and holes we need to fill,” Cornyn said. 

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Nominations

Senate Republicans are preparing to move forward several nominations as they return to Washington. 

The Senate has scheduled a vote on Robert Feitel’s nomination to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

The Senate is also expected to consider “mission-critical” nominations related to the coronavirus and national security nominees, according to a GOP leadership aide. 

At the committee level, the Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday for Brian Miller’s nomination to be the special inspector general for pandemic recovery and Dana Wade’s nomination to be an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead DOJ charges two Iranians with interference in 2020 election In dramatic shift, national intelligence director does not rule out 'extraterrestrial' origins for UFOs MORE’s (R-Texas) nomination to be the director of national intelligence. 

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Democrats have come out against Ratcliffe’s nomination, setting up the potential for fireworks in Tuesday’s hearing, which will mark the first time lawmakers have been able to question Ratcliffe since Trump nominated him earlier this year. 

Trump initially said he would nominate Ratcliffe last year for the position, which has been filled in an acting capacity since former Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE stepped down in August. But Ratcliffe pulled his name for consideration amid scrutiny that he inflated his resume. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee is also scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for judicial nominees. As of Sunday night, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Bottom line GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE (R-S.C.), who chairs the panel, had not disclosed who would be on the agenda, but he’s expected to hold a hearing on District Judge Justin Walker’s D.C. Circuit nomination. 

Both sides expect a fierce fight over Walker’s nomination. The American Bar Association previously rated him “not qualified” when he was nominated to be a district judge, citing his lack of “requisite trial or litigation experience.” But he has powerful supporters in Washington, including the backing of McConnell. 

The Armed Services Committee is also expected to hold a nominations hearing on Kenneth Braithwaite’s nomination to be Navy secretary and James Anderson’s nomination to be deputy under secretary of Defense for policy. The hearing comes as the service has been under the microscope for its handling of the coronavirus, including the removal of Capt. Brett Crozier from command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. 

Coronavirus

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Senators are returning to Washington far apart on a deal on a potential fifth coronavirus relief bill. 

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to omicron variant Barrasso calls Biden's agenda 'Alice in Wonderland' logic: 'He's the Mad Hatter' MORE (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, added that it was “too early to go down that line.” 

“It needs to be bipartisan, which is what we had last time with the CARES Act, 96-0 in the Senate,” he told "PBS Newshour."

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyOcasio-Cortez: 'Embarrassment' that Democratic leaders are delaying Boebert punishment Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Nunes resignation sets off GOP scramble on Ways and Means MORE (R-Calif.) are demanding that the next bill include greater liability protections for employers, as businesses pressure Congress to pass new language over concerns that they could be sued as they start to reopen. 

McConnell has warned that it is his ‘red line” and that the Senate won’t pass a bill without it, even as the idea has received a lukewarm reception from Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBuild Back Better Is bad for the states  Dole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Biden points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote MORE (D-N.Y.). 

Meanwhile, Democrats are calling more aid for state and local governments that have been hit hard by the virus their top priority for the next bill, with Pelosi floating that they could need roughly $1 trillion. 

But some GOP senators are wary about providing more help to state and local governments beyond the $150 billion passed as part of March’s $2.2 trillion package. And the caucus is deeply divided over whether to give states more flexibility on how they are able to use the money already passed by Congress, including if they should allow it to be used for revenue replacement. 

While senators continue to hash out their negotiating positions, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on coronavirus testing on Thursday with Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and Gary Disbrow, the acting director of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. 

Senators in both parties have warned that the United States remains behind on testing capacity and the ability to carry out contact tracing — two things that health care experts warn are needed in order to safely lift social distancing restrictions. 

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, meanwhile, will a hearing on the status of the airline industry, including the implementation of coronavirus-related aid.