Democrats debate how and when to get House back in action

Democrats debate how and when to get House back in action

Democrats are debating over how the House should make its return to Washington, with a majority preferring to remain in their districts given the public health risks but other restive lawmakers saying the party needs to have a presence at the Capitol.

Most Democrats argue the risks of traveling back-and-forth to Washington, D.C., during a pandemic — and the bad example it would set for a country that’s largely been asked to shelter in place — is reason enough to stay away.

This group argues the focus needs to be on remote voting to allow Congress to do its work while social distancing.

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“The way to do that responsibly is to allow for remote-voting procedures,” said Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski House fires back at Trump by passing ObamaCare expansion MORE, a New Jersey Democrat who flipped a GOP seat in 2018. “It allows us to fulfill our responsibility while also setting a good example for Americans.”

Other Democrats worry that would leave them sidelined for weeks, allowing President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE to dictate the coronavirus dialogue. They say it would also complicate efforts to draft emergency legislation and prevent the kind of aggressive oversight demanded of Congress as almost $3 trillion in emergency funding flies out the door. 

“If we are legislating with respect to the pandemic, yes, yes, Congress should be open and we should be prepared to have hearings as well as voting on the floor,'' said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse passes police reform bill that faces dead end in Senate Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation MORE (D-N.C.). 

Those contrasting sentiments were on full display last week, when House GOP leaders forced lawmakers back to Capitol Hill to vote on Congress’s latest coronavirus relief bill, providing almost $500 billion to help small businesses and hospitals weather the crisis. That legislation had passed through the Senate unanimously, meaning most senators could avoid a return to Washington. But Republicans in the House sought a recorded vote, largely to reinforce Trump’s calls to reopen the national economy amid cratering retail spending and historic spikes in unemployment.

Some Democrats welcomed the opportunity to return to Washington, not least to demonstrate that Congress is working to confront the massive devastation — both economic and health-related — caused by the global pandemic. 

“There’s a strong sentiment, not just among the Republicans, but there's a strong sentiment that we should be here working, doing our job,” said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesSEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Democrats face tough questions with Bolton Democrats debate how and when to get House back in action MORE (D-Conn.). “And we have been working. But it's sort-of hard for us to really do what we need to do if we’re not available to each other."

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“We're doing the right things,” Himes added, referring to the face masks and other safety precautions lawmakers have adopted. “But I think there was pressure to actually be here.”

Another group of Democrats, however, was up in arms that Republicans would force lawmakers to return to the Capitol to vote on legislation that passed with virtually no opposition. 

“I don't know what this need is to show that we’re hopping on planes, flying across the country, despite what the public health officials are advising,” said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosTime for a Democratic reckoning on race  Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push GOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts MORE (Ill.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm. “If you want to look at a clear differentiation between the parties, we believe through-and-through in science. And it seems like maybe there's not the same belief in science [among Republicans] that we have.”

Just a month ago, House leaders in both parties had agreed to pass a $2.2 trillion relief package by voice vote, which allowed hundreds of lawmakers to steer clear of Washington amid fears of public travel and gathering in crowds. 

Since then, however, Trump and outside conservative groups have amplified their concerns that restrictions are causing more damage than the coronavirus itself.

Caught in the middle of the debate are Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAs coronavirus surges, Trump tries to dismantle healthcare for millions Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Pelosi plans legislation to limit pardons, commutations after Roger Stone move MORE (D-Calif.) and her leadership team, who are straddling a fine line between keeping lawmakers at home and bringing them back to the Capitol to show they are actively responding to the crisis and monitoring the administration's emergency spending. 

Pelosi hailed last week’s roll call votes as a demonstration that the full House can reconvene safely to move crucial legislation, provided that strict health precautions are followed.

“It was an example that we can get it done,” Pelosi said afterward.

Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Ernst: Renaming Confederate bases is the 'right thing to do' despite 'heck' from GOP Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding MORE (R-Ky.) pledged Monday that his chamber would return to Washington in exactly one week, on May 4, to begin working on ways to improve the coronavirus response, including protecting small business owners and hospital workers from frivolous lawsuits. The House is also scheduled to return that day.

Yet with social distancing guidelines still in place for most of the country, the idea of adopting a system of remote voting is rising in popularity, at least in the lower chamber. 

Last week, after GOP objections, Pelosi abruptly called off a vote that would allow House lawmakers to hold virtual committee hearings and vote by proxy from their home districts. But Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerMexico's president uses US visit to tout ties with Trump Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay MORE (D-Md.) is now working with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySupreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida's coronavirus surge raises questions about GOP convention McCarthy calls NY requests for Trump tax returns political MORE (R-Calif.) to examine ways to implement remote voting during a national crisis. 

It’s an idea that’s gaining favor with many rank-and-file Democrats, even among centrist leaders concerned about protecting their front-line members with tough races in the fall. The New Democrats, led by Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerDemocrats debate how and when to get House back in action Cornell to launch new bipartisan publication led by former Rep. Steve Israel Tech groups call on Congress to boost state funds for cybersecurity during pandemic MORE (D-Wash.), sent a letter to congressional leaders over the weekend calling for the adoption of proxy voting and virtual committee hearings before the House’s scheduled return on May 4.

Moderate Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Florida's coronavirus surge raises questions about GOP convention New Jersey Rep. Gottheimer wins House primary New Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries MORE (D-N.J.), the co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who has seen 1,500 of his constituents die from the coronavirus and 25,000 test positive, also backs changes to allow the House to operate remotely. 

“I agree that we need public debate and hearings which is key to accountability, transparency and oversight. It’s also essential to fulfilling our constitutional responsibility,” Gottheimer told The Hill. “Every district has different challenges. It’s why I believe we need remote debate, hearings and voting without delay.”

The debate comes as the number of documented cases of the coronavirus on Capitol Hill continues to rise, even as many working within the sprawling complex follow social distancing practices.

At least a dozen U.S. Capitol Police have now tested positive for COVID-19 — up from two officers just a month ago, Gus Papathanasiou, the Capitol Police union leader, told The Hill on Monday.

And nearly a dozen construction workers renovating a Cannon House Office Building have also tested positive, according to the Architect of the Capitol, which is overseeing the project. It’s home to scores of congressional offices.  

At least six lawmakers — including Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide Gianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle MORE (R-Ky.) and freshman Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamHarrison goes on the attack against Graham in new South Carolina Senate ad Club for Growth unleashes financial juggernaut for 2020 races Focus shifts to House after Senate passes major public lands bill MORE (D-S.C.) — have tested positive, though most have fully recovered. 

Those growing statistics have alarmed many who work on Capitol Hill and may be part of the reason Democrats aren’t in any hurry to get back. Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaJohn Kerry hosting virtual campaign events for Biden The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly MORE (D-Fla.) told reporters she was shocked returning to D.C. last week when she observed that only one Transportation Security Administration agent was wearing a mask as she passed through Reagan National Airport.

“Members are focused on delivering critical aid to families, small businesses and state and local governments. And leadership is in agreement,” a House Democratic aide said in a text message Monday. “There is no pressure to prematurely rush back to the halls of the (possibly infected) Capitol."