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Parties divided over health risks to reopening Capitol

Parties divided over health risks to reopening Capitol
© Greg Nash

House leaders are at odds over how the chamber can safely come back into session as the two parties engage in a fight over the optics of working through the coronavirus crisis while the Senate returns to Washington this week.

The battle pits Republicans on one side, pressing Congress to move quickly to resume its work on Capitol Hill, not least as a political statement to workers around the country as more and more states — encouraged by President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE — move to reopen their economies.

Democrats are approaching the matter more cautiously, leaning on the advice of public health officials to warn that a premature return would endanger the safety of not only lawmakers, but also those on transit routes and everyone else on Capitol Hill. Democratic leaders delayed Monday’s scheduled return for at least a week, and they’re pushing for a rules change that would allow House lawmakers to vote remotely on future coronavirus relief bills.

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Most of their caucus, it seems, has embraced that level of caution.

"We're listening to the experts and to the physicians who have told us that we've had a pretty severe outbreak,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) said Monday, referring to 17 construction workers who recently tested positive for the virus while renovating the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill. “We are working day and night already, and I think we have to find a way for us to be able to work as efficiently as possible remotely.”

Yet, the House’s extended recess has opened Democrats to political attacks that they’re missing in action while Senate Republicans are hard at work in Washington. Party leaders, wary of those optics, have responded by easing the chamber back into the Capitol this week with the return of a select group of committees with oversight over the administration’s coronavirus response.

At least one House committee plans to hold a hearing this week, letting Democrats show they are fulfilling their oversight role. Democratic leaders say they don’t have an issue with committees meeting since they are much smaller groups than the roughly 430-member House, and will gather in larger rooms scattered around the Capitol complex.

“It is all practical,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer placed on administrative leave: reports Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN MORE (D-Calif.) said last week, describing the process, “but it is all getting the job done.”

Democrats’ oversight efforts, however, will be hindered by the White House restricting members of the coronavirus task force from testifying before Congress.

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The 13-member House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Health and Human Services will hold a hearing Wednesday with former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden.

The panel had hoped to secure testimony from Anthony FauciAnthony FauciBiden moves to halt US exodus from World Health Organization Presidential pardons need to go Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, but the White House blocked him from appearing.

It’s also possible that the new select committee led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to oversee the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus will convene in Washington this week. But so far, no meeting has been announced.

House Democratic leaders plan to vote on rule changes to allow a form of remote voting and virtual committee work when the chamber comes back into session. A bipartisan task force has been reviewing options for the House to resume its business, but Republicans are opposed to allowing remote voting that has been pushed by Democrats.

Instead, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration Biden urges Americans to join together in appeal for unity MORE (R-Calif.) on Monday outlined ways for the chamber to come back into session with social distancing measures.

The proposal, authored by McCarthy and the top Republicans on the House Rules and Administration committees, suggests taking measures like installing Plexiglas at security checkpoints, gradually bringing committees back into session and limiting the number of roll call votes taken each week.

Republicans expressed openness to allowing “hybrid” committee hearings, in which some members could tune in remotely if they can't travel to Washington, but warned that panels handling sensitive information -- like the Intelligence Committee and the Ethics Committee -- should only meet in person like they normally do.

“We believe there is a pathway forward that enables the House to fully perform its key functions without compromising our shared values or sacrificing bedrock norms,” McCarthy and Reps. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeGOP lawmaker gives up honorary college degree in wake of Electoral College vote LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to impeach Trump after Capitol insurrection House passes measure calling on Pence to remove Trump MORE (R-Okla.) and Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisMore than half of House GOP commits to vote for resolution calling for Cheney to step down from leadership GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Trust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots MORE (R-Ill.) wrote Monday.

On the other side of the Capitol, a similar partisan dance is taking place. Senate GOP leaders have convened the Senate despite rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Washington and the surrounding suburbs. Highlighting the parties' divergent approaches, Republicans are planning to gather several days this week for business-as-usual conference lunches, albeit with some extra physical distance, while Democrats are planning most of their conferencing by telephone.

“The Senate is going to be as smart and safe as we possibly can, and we are going to show up for work like the essential workers that we are,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.) said while convening the upper chamber on Monday.

But while health experts have said that widespread testing is a critical component to resuming operations shuttered by the pandemic, Pelosi and McConnell found rare bipartisan agreement in turning down the Trump administration’s offer to use rapid testing kits like the ones currently used by the White House.

“Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly,” Pelosi and McConnell said in a joint statement, a move that underscored how lawmakers are reluctant to appear as though Congress is receiving special treatment over the public.

Trump -- who has tried to downplay criticism of his administration’s lack of a widespread national testing apparatus -- took a shot at Congress for turning down the offer.

“Interesting? By Congress not wanting the special 5 minute testing apparatus, they are saying that they are not ‘essential,’” Trump tweeted.

McCarthy, siding with Trump, said Monday that rejecting the offer will only hinder Congress’s ability to resume its essential operations as safely as possible.

“We are a mini-city here in Washington,” McCarthy said during a virtual Politico Playbook event. “You want to make sure it's functioning. So I do not think it would be wrong to have one of the Abbott tests where you can have a quick response, especially if there was some type of outbreak. You can quarantine those individuals, you can test the others, and you could have government keep working.”

Some Democrats, particularly moderate members who are facing tough reelection contests in November, are eager to return to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyDemocrats seize on GOP donor fallout Lobbying world Newspaper editorial board apologizes for endorsing Republican over support for Texas lawsuit MORE (Fla.), co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, said Monday that while the group has not endorsed a formal position on how and when Congress should return, members are keen to get back to Washington as quickly as possible, not least to facilitate the oversight of the trillions of dollars in emergency aid already passed to relieve the coronavirus fallout.

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“We are really glad that Congress is getting back to work in Washington, and we hope that this will be a return to regular order,” Murphy said on a press call. “It's critically important as we look at not just the spending that is going on that we are able to conduct our oversight responsibilities, but also we understand that there's going to be the need for additional resources and that's critically important for us to be working on, as well.”

Bringing the House back into session for days at a time involves more complications than the Senate. The House has more than four times as many members, including dozens who sleep in their offices.

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierGlobal Gag Rule is just the tip of the iceberg: Why Repealing the Helms Amendment matters Democrats press to bar lawmakers from carrying guns in the Capitol The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress moves to avert shutdown as virus talks stall again MORE (D-Calif.) raised concerns in a letter to Capitol officials released Monday that the office-dwellers could pose a public health risk if the House comes back into session full-time, citing the construction workers in the Cannon House Office Building who tested positive for the virus.

“If members slept in their offices during this time, they likely had a greater chance of exposure and exacerbated the public health risk of coronavirus,” Speier wrote. “While the practice is de facto eliminated while the House is not in session, members are expected to return to Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks, raising the urgency of addressing this problem.”