McConnell defends decision to bring Senate back amid criticism
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday pledged that the Senate will return to Washington, D.C., next week even as Democrats are accusing him of endangering the lives of his fellow senators and Capitol staff.
McConnell, during a Fox News Radio interview, said senators are “not going to sit on the sidelines,” contrasting his plans with those of House leadership, who reversed course on Tuesday and canceled plans to return to D.C. on Monday.
“Well, one thing we’re going to do is, we’re going to come back to work next Monday, the House is not,” McConnell said, asked about negotiations on the next coronavirus relief package.
“We feel like if people on the front lines are willing to work during the pandemic, we should be as well. And so the Senate will come back; we’ll be in session next week,” he added.
House Democratic leadership initially announced that they would also return to Washington on Monday, May 4, after leaving town in March to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday that they would scrap that plan, citing the opinion of the Capitol physician that it would be unsafe for lawmakers to return in part because the Washington region has still not flattened its number of coronavirus cases.
The guidance to the House has sparked questions if a similar warning was given to the Senate leader, or if the attending physician was consulted in the decision to bring senators back to Washington, D.C.
McConnell’s office on Tuesday declined comment beyond the GOP leader’s scheduling announcement earlier this week.
But Democrats have criticized McConnell’s decision, warning that it endangers the lives of senators and Capitol staff.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told PBS that he wasn’t sure if McConnell consulted the attending physician or not, and declined to say if he thought it was safe for senators to return to the Capitol.
“Leader McConnell made the decision, as I understand it, without even consulting the Capitol physician,” Schumer said.
Pressed if he was saying he thought it wasn’t safe, Schumer added, “The Capitol Hill physician, the chief doctor there, told the House it wasn’t safe. I don’t even know if McConnell called him. So I don’t know what he told McConnell, if he talked to McConnell at all.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also sent a letter to McConnell warning that “without effective safeguards in place” the Senate GOP leader is “endangering the lives of the staff who work there.”
“This is unacceptable. We need details now on how he plans to protect staff across the Capitol complex and our region from the spread of COVID-19,” Van Hollen added.
Van Hollen is asking for McConnell to provide “plans and guidance” for how the Senate will operate, including routine voting or committee hearings, and if he will require things like temperate checks.
The Senate is currently expected to vote on a nomination to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next week, though Senate Republicans are also discussing holding a confirmation hearing for district Judge Justin Walker’s D.C. Circuit Court nomination.
“McConnell is bringing back the Senate to confirm judges — judges, you read that right. Not to provide real solutions to the nation’s hardship & heartbreak. He’s recklessly endangering Capitol workers & others for pure partisan politics,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said on Wednesday.
Schumer in a statement on Wednesday accused McConnell of wanting to bring the Senate back to confirm “more unqualified, right-wing judges and protecting CEOs instead of workers,” an apparent reference to Walker’s nomination and McConnell’s demand that liability protection be included in the next coronavirus bill.
“If the Senate is to return next week, we Democrats demand there be tough oversight of the administration’s dreadful response to this public health crisis and their lackluster implementation of the COVID-related legislation passed by Congress,” he added.
But McConnell, during the Fox News Radio interview, said the Senate will “practice proper safeguards” and “work safely,” including the “proper spacing [and] masks where appropriate.”
“We’re going to modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we’re going to honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business, and we’re going to do it in person,” he said.
The Senate left town in late March when McConnell started a previously scheduled two-week recess a week early in an effort to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Capitol Hill and allow lawmakers to socially distance.
Though Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the only senator known to have tested positive for the virus, several other senators have had to quarantine. Capitol police have had several confirmed cases, and Van Hollen noted in his letter that 11 individuals working on the Cannon House Office Building renovation had also tested positive.
McConnell, in consultation with Schumer and the attending physician, then extended the break for another two weeks, saying the Senate wouldn’t return before May 4.
Washington, D.C., is under a stay-at-home order until at least May 15 and the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms announced this week that they would extend restrictions on access to the Capitol and the suspension of tours through May 15.
“We are taking this temporary action out of concern for the health and safety of congressional employees as well as the public,” they said in a joint announcement.
But a growing number of senators had signaled that they thought the Senate needed to return to Washington as the federal government grapples with how to respond to the growing economic fallout from the virus.
There are more than 4,100 confirmed cases of the virus in Washington, D.C., including more than 200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.