Trump taps members of Congress to advise on reopening
President Trump has asked a bipartisan group of lawmakers to join a panel tasked with determining how to reopen the U.S. economy, which has been hard hit by the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
The administration’s invitations went to Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, multiple sources confirmed to The Hill.
The White House issued an announcement later Thursday afternoon naming 32 House members and 65 senators to the panel and calling it the “Opening Up America Again Congressional Group.”
Among those invited were Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.
Republican senators involved include Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Rand Paul (Ky.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), David Perdue (Ga.), Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) and John Kennedy (La.).
In fact, all Senate Republicans except for Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) were among the names issued by the White House later Thursday.
House Democrats invited include Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Jimmy Panetta (Calif.), Tom Suozzi (N.Y.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Derek Kilmer (Wash.), John Larson (Conn.) and Henry Cuellar (Texas).
House Republicans who were involved include Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Reps. Greg Walden (Ore.), Patrick McHenry (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) and Kevin Brady (Tex.).
The formation of the congressional task force comes as Trump is eager to start reopening shuttered sectors of the country quickly as the coronavirus has devastated the economy. An additional 5.2 million people filed for unemployment last week, according to federal data released on Thursday morning. That puts the total number of unemployment claims over the past month at more than 22 million.
The president held respective phone calls with House and Senate members Thursday morning. Vice President Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also participated in the call, according to Cuellar.
The call covered a number of topics, including additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, relief for small businesses, and the “rapidly expanding access to COVID-19 diagnostic and anti-body tests, ventilators, face masks, and other PPE,” or personal protective equipment, the White House said. Trump also informed lawmakers of plans to issue guidance to governors on reopening their state economies.
On Tuesday evening, the White House named a substantial group of executives from various industries as part of a council advising the president on plans to reopen the economy as the coronavirus outbreak subsides. The president held several calls with those leaders on Wednesday and was reportedly told by banking executives that the U.S. needed to ramp up testing capabilities before Americans return to work.
The White House is expected to release new guidelines on Thursday to help states make decisions on relaxing coronavirus restrictions so that Americans can return to work, and Trump has said he believes some states that have not seen a significant spread of the virus could see social distancing scaled back before May 1.
“The battle continues, but the data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases,” Trump said during a news conference Wednesday evening. “These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines on states for reopening the country.”
The decision on when and how to ease restrictions will ultimately fall to state and local officials, many of whom have issued stay-at-home orders and other measures that extend into May or longer.
When to reopen the economy has become a rolling point of debate. Lifting social distancing restrictions too soon, health experts warn, risks a second surge in cases that would result in more deaths and economic instability.
But the hit to the market comes months before November, where Trump and Republicans were expected to run on the strength of the economy.
Trump has insisted that he wants to reopen in a safe manner while maintaining that officials cannot allow the cure to be “worse than the problem.” And a growing number of GOP senators are calling for a quick, but phased, reopening of businesses and industries that have been scaled down or closed altogether.
It’s “time for Texans to go back to work,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told a local TV station. “It may be that when people go back to work that they wear a mask and gloves for some period of time to limit the spread of disease.”
Democrats taking part in the White House task force quickly pledged to try to guide the panel toward not supporting lifting restrictions until steps like a nationwide testing regime were in place.
“Our primary focus must remain on the public health challenges at hand, starting with a much more comprehensive and faster testing infrastructure to track and respond to the spread of the virus. Reopening the country relies on making free testing readily available in every single community in every corner of the country, and ensuring that data is accessible and transparent,” Heinrich said in a statement.
“Ignoring science- and evidence-based recommendations and prematurely resuming business as usual would undoubtedly risk the lives of all of us,” he said.
Warner, who previously served as governor of Virginia, added in a statement that state and local officials need to be involved in the decision.
“Unfortunately, a rushed, haphazard reopening risks not only further lives lost but also further damage to our economy,” he said.
Juliegrace Brufke and Brett Samuels contributed. Updated at 4:22 p.m.