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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) MalinowskiFive things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Malinowski beats back GOP challenge in New Jersey House race Phil Murphy says no coronavirus outbreaks in New Jersey linked to Trump fundraiser 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 TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds 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 ButterfieldBickering Democrats return with divisions Congress must protect kidney disease patients during the COVID-19 pandemic The time for HELP is now: Senate should pass bill to expedite recovery following natural disasters 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 HimesDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins House Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy 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 BustosDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' 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 PelosiOn The Money: Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms | Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks | Poll: Most Americans support raising taxes on those making at least 0K Battle heats up for House Foreign Affairs gavel Nearly one-third of US adults expect to lose employment income: Census Bureau 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: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' On The Money: Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms | Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks | Poll: Most Americans support raising taxes on those making at least 0K Nearly one-third of US adults expect to lose employment income: Census Bureau 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 HoyerFunding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Hoyer releases 2021 House calendar Democrats eye Dec. 11 exit for House due to COVID-19 MORE (D-Md.) is now working with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyPelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Hoyer releases 2021 House calendar Ronna McDaniel launches bid for third term as GOP chair 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 KilmerCongress must reclaim its Article I powers in order to earn back public trust Hillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments House approves legislation to send cybersecurity resources to state, local governments 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) GottheimerDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Democrat Gottheimer wins reelection in New Jersey Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats 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 PaulMcConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Rand Paul says Fauci owes parents and students an apology over pandemic measures Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) and freshman Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamObama: You lose people with 'snappy' slogans like 'defund the police' GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus 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 ShalalaDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet 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."