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House reverses, but Senate to return despite COVID threat

House reverses, but Senate to return despite COVID threat
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House Democrats on Tuesday reversed course on plans to bring the chamber back into session next week as Senate Republicans vowed to return despite a growing number of coronavirus cases in Washington, D.C.

The contrasting approaches of the two chambers over whether it’s safe for Congress to be in session served as a microcosm of the broader partisan fight over how and when to reopen the nation’s economy.

While Democrats are citing the advice of public health experts in their decision to hold off on reconvening, Republicans are joining President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE in plowing ahead with efforts to return to business as usual.

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As a result, House Democrats next week won’t be in town to pressure the Republican-led Senate to act on the next coronavirus bill and drive the discussion on what should be in it. Senate Republicans have been hitting the brakes on the next legislative package while House Democratic leaders have been pushing for a large and expensive remedy.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Race debate grips Congress Watchdog: Capitol Police need 'culture change' MORE (D-Md.), who had announced Monday that the House would return May 4, cited the opinion of the Capitol physician that it would be unsafe for lawmakers to return in part because the Washington region has still not flattened its number of coronavirus cases.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWatchdog: Capitol Police need 'culture change' Julia Letlow sworn in as House member after winning election to replace late husband The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal after pushback MORE (D-Calif.) also cited a warning from the Capitol physician that bringing roughly 430 House lawmakers back would jeopardize the health of not only the lawmakers, but the staffers, Capitol Police officers, reporters and custodial workers who would accompany them there.

“We had no choice,” she said on a press call. “If the Capitol physician ... recommends that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance.”

Pelosi dismissed the notion that the extended House recess would cause Democrats to lose ground in the fight over the next relief bill, saying public health trumps political expediency.

“We can’t be bothered about whether we’re disadvantaged to the Senate,” she said. “What we have to be bothered about is the health and safety of the workers in the Capitol.”

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Yet Democrats had called the full House chamber back to Washington just last Thursday — also before the city had flattened the curve — to vote on a $484 billion emergency relief package.

And the abrupt change in plans came after House Democratic leaders heard an earful from the rank-and-file during a conference call on Monday evening, with many expressing fears that it’s unsafe to travel and be in Washington for an extended period of time. Others have stressed the importance of Congress serving as an example to the public, much of which has been asked to shelter in place to minimize the virus’s spread.

A frustrated Rep. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceLobbying world Congressional Black Caucus members post selfie celebrating first WH visit in four years Troops defending Capitol sickened by undercooked meat: report MORE (D-Mich.), who represents hard-hit Detroit, told Democratic leaders that if they wanted to bring lawmakers back to Washington, they would need to test every member and every congressional staffer first, a source on the call said. Taking everyone’s temperature wasn’t enough, she warned.

A number of Democratic staffers were furious that party leaders would risk the safety of those asked to return, especially before Congress is ready to vote on the next round of coronavirus relief.

“At a staff level, we were looking at this as completely reckless,” said one Democratic aide. “I’m sure there must be some office somewhere who was, like, eager to spread this disease. I don’t know who the f—- those people are,” the aide continued. “But we all have families [and] we don’t want to be out there right now.”

Hoyer, on a call Tuesday with the New Democrat Coalition, said it made little sense for the House to return before the next coronavirus relief bill, dubbed CARES 2, is ready to hit the floor. The House can then kill two birds with one stone in a day, voting on CARES 2 and a rule change allowing for remote voting without keeping lawmakers in Washington at length, Hoyer said.

House Republicans, meanwhile, declined to endorse the view that it’s not yet safe for lawmakers to return to the Capitol and instead cast doubt on Democrats’ management of the situation.

“It’s clear that Democrats have no idea how to run the House during this critical time and no plan to safely reopen Congress. As Leader McCarthy said last week, we should sit down and chart a bipartisan path forward so members are not constantly twisting in the wind,” a spokesman for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyRepublicans need to stop Joe Biden's progressive assault on America Top academics slam Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act Boehner: 'There's a lot of leaders in the Republican Party' MORE (R-Calif.) said.
House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseScalise: House would 'take action' against Gaetz if DOJ filed charges Scalise carries a milk carton saying Harris is 'missing' at the border Republicans see record fundraising in months after Capitol breach MORE (R-La.) on Tuesday evening issued a release calling for the House to “get back to work.”

“If President Trump and Senate Republicans can be in Washington working safely, there’s no reason for House Democrats to prevent us from doing the same,” Scalise stated. 

The Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, advises both chambers of Congress as well as the Supreme Court. It’s unclear, however, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Memo: Biden puts 9/11 era in rear view Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP MORE (R-Ky.) was given the same medical warnings cited by House Democrats on Tuesday.

Asked that question, McConnell’s office declined to comment beyond the announcement the day before about the Senate reconvening on Monday.

The statement from McConnell confirming the May 4 return date notably did not include any mention of the Capitol physician, but did say that the Senate will “modify routines in ways that are smart and safe.”

By contrast, when McConnell pushed back the initial Senate return date from April 20 to May 4, his announcement cited “the advice of health experts.”

Pelosi stopped short of criticizing McConnell’s decision to reconvene, noting that the much smaller roster of the 100-member Senate could make it easier for the upper chamber to return safely.

“If the Senate is in or not is a matter of a health decision that their leadership has to make. But we could not take any chances because there are so many more of us, and so much more custodial staff,” Pelosi said. “It’s about safety, it’s about science.”

House members have gathered en masse twice for only a day at a time in the last several weeks since the coronavirus shutdowns began, with new safety precautions in place.

But dozens of House members sleep in their offices in an effort to avoid paying rent on pricey D.C. real estate, raising questions about how they could safely do things like use the House gym to take showers. Hoyer acknowledged that only having members in the Capitol for a day is “not as dangerous as having them here for extended periods of time.”

Yet lawmakers in both parties are growing frustrated by their inability to resume regular business, whether in person or remotely, in the midst of a crisis.

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A bipartisan task force composed of Hoyer, McCarthy and the leaders of the Rules and Administration committees have been in talks about options for how the House can conduct its business virtually.

Hoyer said after a discussion among the task force on Tuesday that they are encouraging all House panels to hold “remote roundtables” to test platforms for conducting business remotely.

“The task force will continue to work on identifying changes to the House rules that can secure bipartisan support and will ensure the House can continue its work in full on behalf of the American people,” Hoyer said.

But finding bipartisan consensus on how to conduct floor votes remotely has been more elusive than allowing remote committee hearings. And Republicans, who are increasingly eager to reopen the economy, have shown less and less appetite for keeping Congress at home.

“I think we’re a long way away from what that discussion looks like right now,” Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisA boom in bureaucracy won't build America back any better GOP lawmakers request briefing on Democrats' claims of 'suspicious' Capitol tours before Jan. 6 Republicans take victory lap after Iowa Democrat drops challenge MORE (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said of remote floor votes. “We’ve got to be able to see the shortcomings of technology and how it fits within 200 years of precedent.”

Scott Wong contributed.