Pelosi calls for federal standard to reopen country

Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday called for the Trump administration to adopt a set of national, science-based standards for reopening the country following weeks of economic lockdown triggered by the deadly coronavirus.

“I do think there should be federal standards, and I think that they should set an example,” Pelosi told a small group of masked reporters in the Capitol.

A number of states around the country have begun to scale back the social distancing requirements they’d adopted in response to the pandemic, allowing certain businesses — places like restaurants and beauty salons — to reopen on a limited-capacity basis.

But Pelosi cautioned against that state-by-state patchwork, noting that lines on a map are no barrier to the highly contagious virus.

“Everything should be based on science, and not the state or local — whatever it is,” she said. “And if you’re going to have a standard, you really have to have a federal standard. Because as we know, viruses know no borders, nationally, but they certainly don’t know any state borders.”

Last month, the White House unveiled a set of guidelines advising the nation’s governors how to begin reopening businesses across their states. But the rules are nonbinding, and President Trump has sent a series of mixed messages from the Oval Office: one day criticizing Georgia’s governor for reopening too soon; the next day cheering protesters demanding that officials in Michigan and Minnesota relax their shelter-in-place restrictions.

Pelosi said the muddled message from the president — including sporadic disagreements with his own health care team — has complicated the recovery, leaving the public to wonder how and when they can resume daily routines without fear of contracting COVID-19.

“The way this has been handled is most unfortunate. Because first of all they had guidelines — which were weak, but nonetheless guidelines — and then the president said you don’t even have to honor them,” Pelosi said. “And then we find out now that there was a CDC report that had much more comprehensive guidelines and they buried it in the White House.”

Pelosi did not specify what a set of national standards might look like, but she argued that no return to normalcy will occur without a broad expansion of coronavirus testing — a necessity, in the eyes of most Democrats, if the country and the economy are to recover.

“The only way we’re going to rid ourselves of this [virus] as well as open up our economy, is evidence, science-based: testing, testing, testing,” Pelosi said, repeating a prescription she’s advocated frequently over the last two months. “The point is that we want to open up, but not in a way that causes more deaths.”

While Congress had approved $25 billion for testing late last month, many health care experts say much more will be needed to reopen the country safely — a message Pelosi echoed on Thursday.

“That’s not enough but it’s what we could get,” she said of the $25 billion. “We need to do much more.”

Fueling the reopening concerns was a new study released Thursday that found only nine states around the country are conducting enough tests to reopen safely before the middle of May. Sponsored by Harvard University and NPR, the analysis found that a number of states already easing their lifestyle limitations — including Georgia, Texas and Colorado — don’t have the testing capacity to do so without risking public health.

The national debate over reopening the economy has surfaced in miniature on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans, encouraged by Trump, have returned to Washington this week as an act of solidarity with the grocery clerks, truck drivers and other workers deemed essential during the lengthy shutdown.

House Democrats, by contrast, have postponed their return to the Capitol, citing the health advice of the Capitol physician. Pelosi on Thursday said they would remain on recess until the next round of coronavirus relief is ready for a vote on the House floor, perhaps as early as next week.

The delay has angered House GOP leaders, who are pressing for a quick return to Washington.

“This isn’t just about opening up a campus, it’s about restoring the voice of every American who needs their government to work for them,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday, shortly before Pelosi’s appearance. “It is not healthy for democracy that a select few hold the key to how our country response to this crisis.”

House Democratic leaders are finalizing another emergency aid package, dubbed CARES 2, which will feature billions of dollars to expand testing, unemployment benefits, small business loans and aid for state and local governments, which alone could cost nearly $1 trillion.

In a surprise, Pelosi on Thursday also advocated for the addition of language creating “stabilizers” to govern certain safety net programs — she mentioned unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid’s federal share as examples — so that benefits would be triggered automatically under harsh economic conditions. Those triggers are needed, she argued, so that benefits to vulnerable populations aren’t delayed amid crises due to partisan stalemates on Capitol Hill.

Pelosi said the legislation will also include funds to help states adopt all-mail balloting — a provision designed to protect November’s elections — and prop up the U.S. Postal Service, which has been clobbered by the economic downturn.

“I don’t want to go into the whole bill here because I have to get the agreement of my caucus,” she said, signaling that party leaders and committee heads are still seeking to unite their diverse caucus behind the massive package.

Republicans have criticized Pelosi for charging ahead with the next relief package without input from Republicans in either the White House or Congress. The Speaker defended that strategy on Thursday, saying Democrats want to lay down a marker before the inevitable bipartisan negotiations begin, much as GOP leaders did in the last two rounds.

“We have to start someplace. And rather than starting in a way that does not meet the needs of the American people, we want to set a standard,” Pelosi said. “We need a presidential signature, so at some point we’ll have to come to agreement.”

Pelosi said she’s “hoping” to vote on CARES 2 next week, when Democrats would also stage a vote on a change to House rules allowing members to vote remotely, by proxy. But that timeline remains in flux, and some Democrats have suggested the return would be pushed to the following week.

“I think the hope is next week,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, told The Hill on Thursday. “I don’t know if that’s the expectation.” 

Tags Adam Schiff Coronavirus Coronavirus testing Donald Trump Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi

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