McConnell rejects calls to cancel Senate schedule amid pandemic

Bonnie Cash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday rejected calls to cancel his plan to bring the Senate back to Washington, D.C., on Monday, arguing that they can do their job “safely.”

McConnell, during an interview with Fox News, declined to say if he received guidance from the Capitol physician that it wasn’t safe to attend. House leadership cited the warning when they reversed course and canceled their own plans to return on Monday.

“Well look, we can modify our routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we can honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct our business in person,” McConnell said, in response to a question about whether he had consulted with the attending physician.

“If it’s essential for doctors, nurses, health care workers, truck drivers, grocery store workers and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations during the pandemic, then it’s essential for senators to carefully man ours and support them. We’re going to focus on the job we need to do for the American people, and I think we can conduct our business safely,” McConnell added.

McConnell is coming under fierce criticism from Democrats, and some Republicans, for his decision to bring the chamber back with only nominations currently on the agenda.

Though lawmakers are also discussing a “phase four” coronavirus relief package, which would technically be the fifth piece of legislation to pass the Congress dealing with the crisis, such an agreement is not likely to come together for weeks as House and Senate leaders remain at odds over the scope and details of a bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who at 86 is the oldest senator, sent McConnell a letter on Wednesday urging him to cancel plans to bring the Senate back into session next week, warning that coming back to Washington “risks all of us” and “sends the wrong message to the American people.”

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also sent separate letters to McConnell asking him to publicly release guidelines for how the Senate will operate while also still complying with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also raised the question of how committees would operate, saying during a conference call, “as much as judges are important, what people want us to be focused on is Covid.”

But Republicans are preparing to advance several nominations when they return to Washington next week, either in committees or on the Senate floor. 

The first order of business when senators return will be a nomination vote on Monday evening. The Senate Banking and Judiciary committees are expected to hold hearings on Trump nominees next week, and the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to hold a hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe’s (R-Texas) nomination to be the director of national intelligence.

President Trump recently lashed out at the Senate for holding pro forma sessions, which prevent him from making recess appointments, during the five-week break.

Though legal experts and GOP senators warned Trump likely did not have the authority to force Congress to adjourn, Republicans said at the time that they understood, and shared, Trump’s frustration on the pace of nominations.

McConnell has said repeatedly that judicial nominations are his top priority as he makes decisions on how to schedule for floor time. He indicated on Thursday that the chamber will be focused on confirmations when it returns on Monday, saying that the Senate is “in the personnel business.”

“We have many confirmations for example … that have been balled up by the Democrats, even before the pandemic. So we have much work to do on behalf of the American people, and we think we can do it safely,” he said.

Tags Chris Van Hollen Coronavirus Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump John Ratcliffe Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Sherrod Brown

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