Coronavirus culture war over reopening economy hits Capitol Hill

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The brewing culture war over when to reopen the nation’s economy arrived Thursday on Capitol Hill, where Republicans, defying the advice of public health experts, forced lawmakers back to the House chamber to pass legislation that was virtually unopposed. 

The Republicans’ longing to return to business-as-usual mirrors that coming from President Trump, who is increasingly eager to lift the lifestyle restrictions designed to contain the spread of the deadly pandemic. GOP leaders argued this week that lawmakers should show up to Washington in solidarity with the medical workers, truck drivers, grocery clerks and other service-sector employees deemed essential during the coronavirus crisis. 

Democrats have a different view, wary that reopening the economy too soon would risk more coronavirus outbreaks. They maintained that the House should find a way to conduct its business remotely while it remains risky to gather in person.

“Unfortunately, it’s starting to become a partisan issue, whether or not you listen to doctors,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, where officials are expecting protests Friday from conservatives urging the economy to reopen. 

“Clearly we should not be reopening yet as a country until we have our testing capacity up,” he added. 

House officials instituted new safety protocols for Thursday’s votes to clear a $484 billion relief package for small business and hospital aid and create a new select committee to investigate the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The new precautions included staggering the number of lawmakers in the chamber at a time to vote and encouraging everyone to wear facial coverings.

But there were partisan differences even in following some of the guidelines. While most lawmakers in both parties wore masks, the dozens who did not appeared to be, without exception, Republicans. 

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee and a fierce Trump defender, notably did not wear a mask throughout the day, including his time speaking on the floor. 

That drew a rebuke during floor debate from House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who pointed to guidance from the Office of the Attending Physician advising people to wear masks while speaking to prevent viral spread. 

“While face coverings are not mandatory, they’re certainly recommended,” McGovern said. “So people can do whatever they want to do, but I would say while we’re all trying to show how fearless we are, we should be mindful of the people that are surrounding us. And so until I’m advised otherwise, I’m going to keep my mask on.”

While McGovern kept his mask on throughout floor debate, many members — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — removed their facial coverings to deliver speeches on camera despite the guidance to help avoid spreading viral particles. 

The decision by some lawmakers to ignore the facial covering guidance wasn’t for lack of supply. House officials left boxes of surgical masks outside the chamber available for lawmakers’ use.

House Democrats had initially planned to put proposed rules changes up for a vote on Thursday that would have allowed virtual committee hearings and a way for members to cast votes remotely by using proxies. The proxy voting system would allow absent members to authorize other members physically present in the chamber to cast votes on their behalf. 

But Democratic leaders scrapped the plan following pushback from Republicans who are resistant to making rules changes that would allow lawmakers to vote from afar.  

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and the chairs and ranking Republicans on the Rules and Administration committees met Thursday in the Capitol to discuss a path forward for how lawmakers could operate virtually during the pandemic. The bipartisan group will meet again by phone on Monday to discuss the path forward.

Hoyer suggested that the House could start with finding a way for committees to operate virtually using technology first before making a decision on how to cast floor votes remotely.

“I think we need to raise the confidence level that technology can in fact work and will be fair to both sides,” Hoyer said. “And how do you build confidence? You do it in small segments.”

“We’ll take one step at a time,” Hoyer added.

Before Thursday, House members last gathered en masse on March 27 to pass the $2 trillion relief legislation that created the small business loan program and individual cash payments to Americans. 

The House passed that bill by voice vote, but required the physical presence of at least 216 members to establish a quorum and override Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) demand for a roll call vote.

At the time, GOP and Democratic leaders worked together to ensure they had a minimum number of members to avoid making everyone return to Washington and risk contagion. Trump even attacked Massie with tweets saying that the Kentucky libertarian was a “third rate grandstander.” And Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) warned that Massie’s “disgraceful” and “irresponsible” move could lead to a “risk of infection.”

But on Thursday, Republicans essentially adopted Massie’s position, arguing that lawmakers should be showing up to the Capitol during the pandemic.

“Many want to vote from home or by proxy. If you think that’s leadership, then I would encourage you to rethink what it means to be a representative,” said freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas). “If we are to survive this historic crisis, we might collectively stiffen our spines and demonstrate to the American people what that looks like.”

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee now reviewing alternative voting options, said that having the House in session with some new protocols was better than not at all.

“We’re here today functioning. Obviously we’re taking precautions. Obviously we’re doing things differently, we’re a little bit out of our comfort zone as a body. This isn’t the way we normally work. But the point is we’re here in Washington, D.C., and we’re working,” Cole said.

The head-snapping change of position on the part of most Republicans — who were loathe to return to the Capitol last month, but had insisted on it this week — was not overlooked by Democrats, who accused GOP leaders of risking the spread of the virus for the sole purpose of protecting their ally in the White House.

“The politics are changing with all of this,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). “Instead of just following the best medical and scientific expertise and advice, this is turning into a political football, as far as opening up the economy and letting people return to work.” 

“The pressure’s building on them,” he added.

King defended the Republicans’ change of tactic, noting that the four-week span between the votes allowed party leaders and Capitol officials to adopt precautionary measures, like the use of face masks. 

“I think they just felt that they’re more able to deal with it now, they understood what had to be done, and they could coordinate it a lot better,” he said. 

But King also acknowledged that, by forcing the full House back to Washington, Republican leaders had also heightened the risk that the virus would come to Washington with the traveling lawmakers, and return to districts around the country when they leave. 

“It’s no big thing for me. I drove down here, it’s four hours, so it’s no big deal. But guys coming from all over the country,” King said, trailing off.  

It’s unclear when the House will return again. Both the House and Senate have set a target date of May 4 for coming back into session.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) held firm this week that he still believes that’s when the upper chamber will reconvene. But Democratic leaders on Thursday sounded skeptical it would ultimately be a realistic date for the House.

“I’ve made it very clear that we’re going to be dictated by the safety of our members, the safety of our staff, the safety of the press,” Hoyer said. 

All but 35 House members showed up to vote on Thursday, with many of the absent lawmakers hailing from the West Coast. The interim coronavirus aid package passed easily without their presence by a vote of 388-5 and independent Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) voting “present.”

Aside from the safety concerns of hundreds of lawmakers gathering in the same place at a time when public health experts warn that even going to the grocery store can be risky, finding planes to catch isn’t so easy either.

Rank-and-file members traveling from all over the country described difficulty finding available flights between their districts and Washington, even while coming from major metropolitan areas.

Lawmakers in more rural parts of the country had to jump through additional hoops. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) described having to drive two and a half hours to Chicago O’Hare International Airport to catch a flight to Washington, since the airport she typically uses didn’t have flights available to get to the Capitol in time. 

“It’s clear that we need to find some ways to conduct business without being here,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “This is a new era, and it’s not going away.”

Tags Cheri Bustos Coronavirus Dan Crenshaw Donald Trump Jim Jordan Justin Amash Kevin McCarthy Mark Pocan Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pete King Pramila Jayapal Ron Kind Steny Hoyer Thomas Massie Tom Cole

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