Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEconomy adds just 235K jobs in August as delta hammers growth Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough MORE (R-Utah) on Tuesday knocked Congress for taking a weeks-long recess amid the coronavirus pandemic that has roiled the economy.
"Congress is in recess. This ... is simply unacceptable. If COVID-19 requires Congress to act then it requires Congress to convene," Lee said from the Senate floor Tuesday.
The Senate is currently out of town for a five-week break amid safety concerns sparked by the coronavirus, with lawmakers not expected to return before May 4. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE (R-Ky.) is the only senator who has been confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus, but several senators, including Lee, have had to go into quarantine.
"All the essential work of Congress, that is any step necessary to enact legislation ... can be done only by members who are voting and present in their legislative chambers," Lee said, adding that they could enact social distancing policies to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
That leaves Congress with two choices, according to Lee: "We can choose to legislate, in which case we have to convene, or we can stay in recess and not legislate."
A handful of senators are in the Capitol on Tuesday to pass a $484 billion coronavirus relief package that will provide more funding for hospitals, small businesses and testing. But the Capitol has been turned into a relative ghost town amid the break, with most lawmakers back in their home states and staff working remotely.
Congress passed a $2.2 trillion coronavirus package before they left Washington, D.C., last month. Congressional Democrats and the administration have been negotiating the "interim" bill since then; they are also expected to need to pass a fourth coronavirus bill in the coming weeks.
"That was weeks ago. That was literally 20 million lost jobs ago. There is more to do. ... Unlike millions of our constituents, members of Congress are still receiving paychecks. It's time for us to earn them," Lee said, referring to the passage of the third bill.
Lee floated that the Senate should return before May 4 to try to pass additional legislation.
"When we come back on May 4, I hope we do, I hope the force will be with us, but we have got to get back together. I would hope even sooner than that because we cannot legislate without our members here. We can't do that from recess," he said.
While Congress has been out of Washington, lawmakers are increasingly leaning on conference calls and social media to connect with their colleagues and their constituents.
But Lee called the dynamic "not acceptable."
"We should not be passing major legislation ... without Congress actually being in session," he said. "Tweets and press conferences. This isn't legislating."
Senate GOP leadership has rejected calls for allowing for remote voting during a public health crisis, though Sens. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP hopes spending traps derail Biden agenda A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns MORE (R-Mo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Seven takeaways from California's recall election Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate MORE (D-Minn.) are negotiating a potential deal to allow for remote committee hearings.
The House Democratic leadership, meanwhile, has embraced the idea of temporarily allowing voting remotely by proxy, where one member could cast votes for colleagues.
The House is expected to vote this week on changing its rules to allow members to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The House is expected to vote on a rules change related to remote voting by proxy,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Hoyer affirms House will vote Sept. 27 on bipartisan infrastructure bill House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE’s (D-Md.) office said in a notice to members.