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Five factors influencing when the House returns

House Democratic leaders face a wide range of challenges that will influence how and when they resume legislative business in Washington during the pandemic.

The Senate came back into session on Monday, but reconvening the House is more complicated, starting with the simple fact that it has more than four times as many lawmakers. And then there are the House-specific quirks, like the dozens of lawmakers who sleep in their offices and the staff workspaces that tend to be more cramped than the Senate offices.

The House could return as soon as this week, but that will depend on when Democrats introduce their next coronavirus relief bill.

Here are five things House leaders are taking into consideration as they weigh reopening the chamber.

Number of coronavirus cases in the DC area

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have both cited guidance from Capitol physician Brian Monahan, who warned that the nation’s capital and its suburbs have yet to flatten the number of COVID-19 cases.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said Friday that the city isn’t ready to start lifting restrictions, even as the governors of neighboring Maryland and Virginia have started taking steps to gradually reopen their states.

“We have to make decisions that are right for the District,” Bowser said at a news conference. “You see our numbers, that we haven’t seen a sustained plateau, and certainly not a decrease in our numbers.”

D.C. is under a stay-at-home order until at least through Friday. 

While some lawmakers may be traveling to Washington from parts of the country with fewer cases, taking a train or plane is far riskier than it was previously. And once they arrive, they’re entering what’s becoming a hotspot.

Some lawmakers who traveled to D.C. in late April expressed concern after observing maskless airline crew members, passengers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at airports. Major U.S. airlines and TSA have since announced policies requiring employees to wear facial coverings, which may help put some traveling lawmakers at ease.

Testing

Pelosi has made a point of saying “testing, testing, testing” in most of her public appearances to stress the need for widespread coronavirus testing.

Yet Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently turned down the Trump administration’s offer for a rapid testing system for Capitol Hill, the same one used by the White House. The two congressional leaders said those resources should be prioritized for frontline workers, not Congress.

Some GOP lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.), have openly disagreed with that move, arguing Congress is in a unique position with lawmakers regularly traveling to and from all parts of the country.

“Members of Congress would represent sort of a virus-spreading machine, coming in here to a coronavirus hot spot and then going home,” Alexander said.

But it’s not just lawmakers who would need to be tested: congressional staff, Capitol Police officers, construction workers, reporters and others who normally fill the Capitol complex are at risk of catching and spreading the virus as well.

Accommodations for lawmakers who sleep in offices

For dozens of House members, the office isn’t just a workspace, it’s also their bedroom. They typically make use of facilities on the premises, like the House gym’s showers. But with the gym closed during the pandemic, those lawmakers have limited options.

McCarthy, a known office-sleeper, suggested during a recent Politico event that “when you’re dealing with living in offices… I think you’d probably have to change the aspect of the number of staff that could come in.”

Hotels in D.C. remain open, but no official guidance has been issued on whether it’s safe for lawmakers to resume sleeping in their offices.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has long called for banning offices as dwellings, pointed to the numerous construction workers in a House office building who tested positive for COVID-19 as evidence that lawmakers living in offices could be at greater risk.

“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 in a letter to House officials.

Office configurations for staff

Most congressional staffers have been teleworking since March and are likely to continue working remotely. The configurations of most House offices often mean several staffers are cramped into cubicles that make it nearly impossible to stay six feet away from a colleague.

When staffers are on Capitol Hill, officials are advising lawmakers to bring just one staff member with them to hearings, and only if absolutely necessary.

McCarthy and the top Republicans on the House Rules and Administration committees proposed installing Plexiglas in high-traffic areas such as security checkpoints or in committee rooms along the dais as “possible reconfigurations to accommodate physical distance.”

Plexiglas panels could also be installed in member offices to provide a barrier between visitors and staff seated at the front desk.

Remote floor voting and committee work

The House recently conducted roll call votes by staggering the number of lawmakers in the chamber. This past week, one House subcommittee held a hearing with enhanced safety measures in place to limit the number of people in the room and maximize physical distance.

But House Democrats still plan to forge ahead with rule changes to permit virtual committee work and proxy voting. That would allow an absent member to authorize a colleague physically present in the chamber to cast a vote on their behalf.

“If people can’t come because we don’t want them to come if they have a fever or if somebody in their home has a fever, they should be able to be recorded,” Pelosi said Thursday.

Some lawmakers have called for exploring options to participate in floor debates remotely. Members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus live-streamed a “virtual floor debate” over Zoom this past week to demonstrate how that would work, complete with House floor photo backgrounds as each lawmaker spoke and a gavel wielded by presiding Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) to enforce time limits.

The Senate is already conducting “hybrid” hearings in which some members participate via videoconference, and various House committees have been holding informal forums to test the technology.

While House Republicans have expressed openness to hybrid hearings, they remain resistant to allowing remote voting for committee markups or floor votes.

Pelosi, however, has been adamant.

“Let me remove all doubt: our members want remote voting by proxy,” she said.

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