Senators balance coronavirus action with risks to health

Senators in both parties are deeply conflicted about staying in Washington to hash out a legislative response to a crisis that has shut down much of the country.

Some are privately floating the possibility of adjourning the chamber for several weeks after approving a House-passed coronavirus relief bill that President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE has urged Congress to pass as soon as possible.

One senior Republican lawmaker said there’s a “sentiment” that senators should “stay here, get the stimulus done and not come back to this petri dish for a while,” referring to the Capitol campus.

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Many members of the Senate are on their 70s and 80s, making them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Yet they are also under pressure to take action to both protect the country from the coronavirus crisis and to rescue an economy increasingly in peril.

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE met with Republican senators to discuss the House-passed legislation responding to the crisis. The Senate has yet to vote on the package, but there is already talk that a bigger bill is needed.

Mnuchin told reporters while leaving an evening meeting that they were “going to start working with the Senate” on new bills even as they sought to pass the current legislation.

That has sparked worries about the medical risk of convening several days per week in Washington to hash out a deal at the Capitol.

Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children Legal immigrants at risk of losing status during coronavirus pandemic MORE (D-Ill.) on Monday chastised Senate Republican leaders on the floor for requiring lawmakers to return to Washington to vote on the House bill instead of approving it by voice vote.

“Let’s not dream up some way in Senate rules to drag this out day after weary day and expose one another to the viruses that are rampantly crossing this country and threatening us every single day,” he said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate includes 0M for mail-in voting in coronavirus spending deal Hillicon Valley: Facebook reports huge spike in usage during pandemic | Democrats push for mail-in voting funds in coronavirus stimulus | Trump delays deadline to acquire REAL ID Democrats press for more stimulus funding to boost mail-in voting MORE (D-Del.) said people are worried about the dangers faced by senators convening in Washington.

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“My family, my staff, my community is certainly concerned about the possible consequences of having a hundred seasoned senators convening and then going home and convening and going home,” he said.

Coons said he traveled to Washington from Delaware Monday on a sparsely occupied Amtrak train.

“I brought a bag of Clorox wipes and wiped down every surface,” he said.

He said he’s trying to learn more about emergency procedures to pass legislation without the full Senate being present in the Capitol.

“I need to get briefed up on what measures exist for us to take up and consider legislation on an emergency basis, either by [unanimous consent] or by remote [vote]," he said. “There are emergency voting provisions.”

House Democratic leaders announced Monday they will extend their recess and not return on March 23.

The Senate averted a procedural vote scheduled for Monday evening by approving by voice vote a 77-day extension of three USA Freedom Act provisions.

GOP leaders are exploring the possibility of holding their regular Tuesday lunch meeting in a larger room so that senators don’t have to sit so close to each other. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJoe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing MORE (D-N.Y.) announced that Democrats will skip their regular caucus lunch on Tuesday and instead hold a conference call.

Senators are eager to get out of town and avoid the risks of a crowded workplace, but they want to get at least one stimulus measure signed into law before taking a break. The House-passed bill is poised to move quickly but the next round of stimulus could take weeks to hash out.

“We need to get phase two and phrase three done, and we’re not anywhere near to getting phase three,” Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerStimulus empowers Treasury to rescue airlines with billion in direct assistance White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package McConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus MORE (R-Miss.) said Monday.

Congress earlier this month passed an initial $8.3 billion coronavirus response package to combat the spreading disease, pouring resources into medical supplies, testing, and research and development.

Schumer on Monday called for Congress to approve a third round of relief totaling $750 billion to be spent on expanding hospital capacity, more coronavirus treatment, loan relief for people whose livelihoods are hurt by a shutdown in economic activity and emergency child care.

But the plan isn’t being embraced by Republicans, who say they are concerned it would grow the deficit.

“It’s a big number,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoState Department under fire as 13K Americans remain stranded abroad Senators balance coronavirus action with risks to health Heidi Klum says she tried to get a coronavirus test: 'I just can't get one' MORE (R-W.Va.).

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Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGranting cash payments is a conservative principle 7 things to know about the coronavirus stimulus package Scarborough rips Trump for mocking Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'Could have been a death sentence' MORE (R-Mass.) has called for immediately sending out $1,000 checks to every American adult to help families and workers pay their bills and increase spending in the economy.

He is also proposing bridge grants from the Small Business Administration to small businesses that apply for but don’t receive economic injury disaster loans.

Durbin on Sunday urged GOP leaders not to expose senators and staff to infection by flying back to Washington, while Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Trump, Dems close in on deal MORE (R-Ark.) argued on the Senate floor that any government worker not directly working on trying to stop the spread of the virus, mitigate its economic impact or provide essential services such as care for patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital should stay home.

Some senators on Monday said it’s possible they take a break from Washington for a week or two while negotiators put together the larger stimulus package.

But lawmakers facing competitive races in November are sensitive about the optics of leaving town indefinitely at a time when many Americans are looking for leadership and some economic experts are calling for a massive infusion of economic stimulus to prevent the country from sliding into a deep recession.

“We do need to show leadership. This is when the United States needs us working on issues that are very, very important,” said Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstCampaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Politics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment MORE (R-Iowa), who is up for reelection this year.

Romney echoed the call to keep the Senate in session until it approves the House bill and another round of stimulus legislation.

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“I’d like to get phase two done and get phase three done before we leave,” he said.

While officials have barred the general public from the Capitol and Senate and House office buildings until April, there are still hundreds of staffers and journalists working on the Hill.

And the Senate chamber itself gets crowded during votes, when lawmakers cram into the well to register their votes with the clerk.

Senators say the decision on how long to stay in Washington may depend on day-to-day developments.

“I think it’s important for our government to remain here and doing our jobs,” said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenators balance coronavirus action with risks to health Coronavirus takes toll on Capitol Hill As we face coronavirus battle, we must ensure critical supplies of respirators for health care workers MORE (R-Neb.) before a Senate GOP leadership meeting.

“We need to be obviously aware of the dangers that are out there,” she added. “We just have to wait and see what we’re faced with.”