Democrats face disadvantage in COVID-19 political battle

Democrats face disadvantage in COVID-19 political battle
© Bonnie Cash

House Democrats are facing a disadvantage in the political battle over the coronavirus pandemic, with the one chamber controlled by their party delaying its return to Washington while Senate Republicans come back in session next week.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse votes unanimously to extend deadline for coronavirus small-business loan program Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated MORE (D-Calif.) has been a constant presence on television while the House is out of session, and rank-and-file Democrats have been busy pushing relief proposals from their districts with virtual town halls and forums.

But Senate Republicans will have the optical advantage of taking floor votes, holding hearings — and boasting that they’re hard at work in the Capitol while the House remains on recess. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While most House Democrats support leadership’s decision to hold off on bringing 429 members of Congress and their staffs back to the Capitol next week in a city with a significant number of coronavirus cases, they also recognize that they will have to find ways to ensure that the only lever of government currently controlled by their party isn’t sidelined.

“If we can get back to doing oversight hearings using technology, we come in and vote when we actually have things to vote on, I think you can strike a balance much better than whatever it is the Senate’s attempting to do,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanSteyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary Why Veterans Affairs workers don't trust the Trump administration MORE (D-Wis.), a Progressive Caucus co-chair.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Democrats expect Russian bounties to be addressed in defense bill MORE (D-Md.) dismissed the notion that Republicans in Washington would have a tactical advantage, saying they will reconvene when the next coronavirus relief bill is ready for a vote.

“The question is, can we get them back safely when needed? And the fact is, you have seen we have done that,” Hoyer said. “So, the White House may be on television, my feeling is not very productively, and the Senate may come back, but we'll see what legislative business they do.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) appeared to take several shots at the House during a Fox News Radio interview on Wednesday.

He said that senators are “not going to sit on the sidelines” while noting that they will enact “proper safeguards” like physical spacing and face masks.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We’re going to come back to work next Monday, the House is not,” McConnell said. “We feel like if people on the front lines are willing to work during the pandemic, we should be as well. And so the Senate will come back.”

Still, Senate Republicans have no immediate plans to vote on coronavirus-related bills, focusing next week instead on approving various conservative nominations. They include President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s picks for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, director of national intelligence and the D.C. Circuit Court.

That schedule — combined with warnings from public health experts, including the Capitol physician, against unnecessary travel and crowding — has prompted accusations from Democrats that GOP leaders are jeopardizing public health to score political points. 

“We're in a position where everybody understands the need to demonstrate that the federal government needs to show responsibility and show that it's working hard. And I totally respect that,” said a Democratic aide. “But I also think that the federal government needs to demonstrate and lead by example when the most important thing to do is to social distance.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has stopped short of saying it’s unsafe to return to the Capitol next week, but has argued that if the chamber does return, it should use its time to examine the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, not nominations.

“If the Senate is to return next week, we Democrats demand there be tough oversight of the administration’s dreadful response to this public health crisis and their lackluster implementation of the COVID-related legislation passed by Congress,” Schumer said in a statement.

Pelosi, for her part, has maintained a high profile through the long recess with in-person press events, phone conferences and a long string of cable news interviews.

On Wednesday, she named seven Democrats to the special House panel charged with policing the administration’s emergency spending effort. 

“[Voters] expect us to ensure that the nearly $2 trillion, that historic relief that we had passed in a number of bills, is widely and effectively used, that it goes to those who need it the most,” she said from the virtually empty Capitol. 

Other House Democrats are scrambling to conduct oversight hearings next week, even if the full chamber won’t be in session.

The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services and the Labor Department announced on Wednesday that it will hold an in-person hearing next week on the federal COVID-19 response.

No witnesses have been announced yet, but the 13-member subcommittee is asking lawmakers to avoid bringing staff — or only bringing one aide if they must — and for everyone to wear facial coverings.

Guidance from the House Appropriations Committee for the hearing advised offices that “the face covering is likely to be most useful in preventing viral spread while a person is speaking.” But lawmakers last week largely removed masks while they delivered House floor speeches on an interim coronavirus relief bill, while a handful of GOP lawmakers declined to wear facial coverings at all.

Pelosi noted that other committees could also convene next week, such as Small Business and the new select committee on the COVID-19 response led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to which the Speaker named members on Wednesday.

“Some members want to come back,” Pelosi said, noting that in the future some hearings could be done in a hybrid format of some lawmakers physically present with others joining virtually.

In the meantime, the bipartisan task force studying virtual options for the House is testing technologies this week for conducting hearings remotely so that committees are no longer sidelined. Committees have been holding telebriefings with administration officials in recent weeks, but have been unable to convene official public hearings due to House rules that require meeting in person.

House committees are being encouraged to conduct “remote roundtables” this week to test various platforms to resume business without having to convene in person. Multiple video conferencing technologies have been approved for House use, including Teams, Webex, VSee, and Zoom FedRAMP, according to a House Administration Committee spokesman.

House Republicans have expressed openness to conducting committee work virtually, although they remain opposed to Democrats’ proposals for changing the rules to allow remote floor voting.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Many committees are asking for remote technology. And we have to ensure that there's a collaborative effort in understanding which technology can work with the House network, which one is most conducive to doing, let's say, a remote hearing, and which ones are going to provide the best opportunity for a back-and-forth in a committee hearing,” said Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisEurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings Voting reform advocates pounce on Georgia debacle to urge changes The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump visits a ventilator plant in a battleground state MORE (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee and a member of the bipartisan task force.

When the House originally planned to reconvene next Monday, one suggested safety measure for returning to Washington was for members to attend committee hearings via videoconference from their offices. But a number of Democrats privately griped among themselves that they could do the same thing from their districts, negating the need to travel to the Capitol.

“Many of us were saying, 'But can't we do that from our districts if it's Zoom?' ” Pocan said. “Having us fly across the country in order to participate in a Zoom meeting rather than just participate in a Zoom meeting, really, it just didn't pass the common-sense test.”