House reverses plan, will not return to Washington next week

House leaders on Tuesday reversed course on plans to bring the chamber back into session next week amid fears about whether it is safe to return to the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced the change in plans after initially saying the day before that the House would return the following Monday, citing discussions with the Capitol physician, who warned that the Washington region has not yet flattened its number of coronavirus cases.

“We will not be meeting next week,” Hoyer told reporters. “The House physician’s view was that there was a risk to members that was one he would not recommend taking.”

Hoyer said that House leaders will instead wait to call members back to Washington when the next round of coronavirus relief legislation is ready for a vote. House members have gathered en masse in the Capitol twice in the last several weeks since the social distancing restrictions began to vote on bills to respond to the crisis, but only returned in session for a day at a time.

Hoyer acknowledged that it would be more “dangerous” for lawmakers to stay in Washington for extended amounts of time, like they typically do, than it is for members to be in the Capitol for a short period of time.

“So under those circumstances, we have decided that we will not come back next week, but we will come back very soon to pass the [next] piece of legislation. And at that point in time, we will be asking members to return to Washington,” Hoyer said.

A bipartisan task force including Hoyer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the leaders of the Rules and the Administration committees have been discussing ways to conduct votes and committee business virtually while it remains unsafe for lawmakers and staff to gather in large groups. Hoyer said that the group would be in talks later Tuesday on potential options.

“We are going to be working in the interim on trying to facilitate committees meeting in a real way, but virtually, and provisions for the House of the Representatives to meet if in fact members cannot come back because of the virus,” Hoyer said.

The Senate is still planning to reconvene in May. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday that the upper chamber would reconvene the next Monday and “modify routines in ways that are smart and safe.” A McConnell spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that plans for the Senate had not changed.

Washington, D.C., remains under a stay-at-home order through at least May 15, along with many other states from which lawmakers would be traveling.

House officials established new safety protocols for the votes last week on an interim coronavirus relief bill to renew funds for the small business loan program and hospitals, as well as a measure to create a select committee to oversee the federal coronavirus response. The votes were staggered so that lawmakers voted in smaller groups based on alphabetical order.

Guidance from House officials that everyone wear face masks had mixed results. Most members of both parties wore masks, but some GOP lawmakers opted to forgo the advice.

Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats on a conference call on Monday that they planned to proceed with a vote on allowing a form of remote voting regardless of whether Republicans get on board with the plan.

House Democratic leaders have warmed to the idea of allowing proxy voting, in which absent members could authorize other members physically present in the Capitol to cast votes on their behalf. They initially planned to put the rule change up for a vote last week but called it off following pushback from Republicans, who argued that lawmakers should still be voting in person during the pandemic.

Updated at 12:08 p.m.

Tags Coronavirus Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer
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