WASHINGTON — House leaders abruptly dropped plans Tuesday to bring lawmakers back to Washington for legislative work next week, citing warnings from the congressional physician about the continued spread of the coronavirus in the District of Columbia and its suburbs.
With proposed changes allowing for more significant remote work options on hold due to a partisan uproar, the decision means the House will remain largely sidelined while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brings his chamber into session next week to process President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees and start work on a new coronavirus relief bill.
The House decision, announced by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on a Tuesday morning call with reporters, came less than a day after he told lawmakers to prepare to return to Washington on May 4. That decision prompted pushback from some other Democrats, who saw it as an imprudent risk, especially with no new legislation ready for action.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday she had “no choice” but to heed warnings from Brian Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, who said bringing the chamber back for routine work would place lawmakers and support staffers at risk.
“If the Capitol physician says ... recommends that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance in the interest of the safety of the people who work here,” she said, adding, “It’s about safety. It’s about science.”
The decision stands in contrast to other parts of the federal government, including the White House and the Supreme Court, which have adapted their core functions to the new normal of a pandemic. The court will hear oral arguments by teleconference for the first time in its history on May 4.
McConnell is set to bring senators back for work starting with a Monday evening vote on Trump’s nominee for inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Two days later, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Justin Walker, a McConnell protege nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, wouldn’t say if McConnell consulted with health officials on the decision to bring senators back.
McConnell said in a statement Monday that the Senate would “modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person.” He noted that he considers senators to be as essential as health care providers, first responders, truck drivers and others who have continued doing their jobs during the crisis.
The Senate’s constitutional power to confirm executive nominees distinguishes it from the House, which cannot legislate on its own. But the House, as the only arm of government under Democrats’ control, also holds unique ability at the moment to conduct oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and distribution of nearly $3 trillion in taxpayer dollars.
That ability has been hamstrung, though, by long-standing House rules that require the physical presence of lawmakers in Washington to cast votes and hold official hearings. Frustrated Democrats have complained that, by not adapting processes during the virus outbreak, the House is abdicating its constitutional responsibility.
House Democratic Party leaders proposed moving forward last week with a proxy-voting arrangement that would allow members to authorize a colleague to cast votes in Washington on their behalf, as well as rules changes to allow for remote committee work. But Pelosi withdrew the plan after Republican leaders objected. Leaders of the two parties are discussing a potential compromise.
“Inaction, however, is simply not an option,” House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who proposed the proxy-voting plan, wrote in a Washington Post opinion article published Monday. “The need to adapt is urgent. Experts have made clear that, even if the crush of coronavirus lessens in the immediate future, this pandemic could come back even stronger in the fall. I don’t want to look back and wish we had made changes now.”
Pelosi and Hoyer said negotiations will continue this week, and both expressed hope that a bipartisan agreement might be reached. Hoyer said last week that he hoped a deal could be struck to allow remote committee work that can pass the House on a voice vote or by unanimous consent, allowing lawmakers to remain at home.
Younger lawmakers questioned why the House couldn’t adopt technology such as video conferences widely embraced by schools, local governments and the private sector.
“The past 48 hours of Democratic House Leadership saying we would be in session on Monday, and then canceling votes highlights the URGENT need to reimagine and modernize how Congress can safely continue to do our critical legislative, approps, & oversight work during this crisis,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., tweeted Tuesday.
Meanwhile, many logistical questions remain unsettled as the Senate plots its return. While McConnell already has moved to change procedures for floor votes, extending their duration and discouraging senators from loitering in the chamber, no such protocols are yet in place for committee meetings.
Senate Republicans plan to continue their usual conference policy lunches next week, where most of their 53 members gather several times a week to discuss strategy, according to Republican officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. As lawmakers assembled the $2 trillion CARES Act last month, the meetings continued, albeit in a larger room. Among the attendees was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who later tested positive for COVID-19.
Senate Democrats switched to a daily conference call, instead, and will continue doing so next week, a Democratic aide said. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has pressed Republicans to use their time in Washington to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, holding hearings on the pace of COVID-19 testing, the effectiveness of emergency lending programs and the confirmations of oversight officials.
“If we are going to be in D.C. with the coronavirus raging, it is critically important that we continue and actually ramp up our messaging and activities on the oversight front,” he told fellow Democrats Tuesday, according to a person on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are waging a similar protest, urging its chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to postpone Walker’s May 6 confirmation hearing and, instead, hold sessions addressing pandemic issues under the panel’s jurisdiction, such as the circumstances of the virus among law enforcement personnel and in correctional facilities.
“There is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture,” the Democrat senators wrote to Graham in a letter obtained by The Washington Post. “There is, however, considerable urgency — and growing public demand — for oversight of the federal government’s response to COVID-19.”
Many Senate aides’ current work situation won’t change. Staffers for Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who was among the first senators to mandate that his aides telework, likely will continue to work remotely next week, a spokeswoman said.
And aides to Democrat Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Patty Murray of Washington will continue to work remotely, according to their offices. When the Senate is in session, Kaine and one of his staffers will be in the Capitol, a spokeswoman said.
Hoyer said he and Pelosi reached the opposite decision from McConnell on returning to business after consulting Monday with Monahan, who oversees health care matters for both chambers of Congress.
Public health officials across the country have continued to recommend that all workers who have the option of working remotely do so.
Monahan’s view, Hoyer told reporters, “was that there was a risk to members that was one that he would not recommend taking” and that he was “forceful” in warning of the nature of the pandemic in the Washington metropolitan area.
“The numbers in the District of Columbia are going up, not down,” Hoyer said.
As of Monday, city officials reported 3,994 positive COVID-19 cases and 190 deaths of D.C. residents. Both figures have steadily increased in recent weeks. Maryland has reported more than 19,500 cases, while Virginia has more than 13,500 cases.
Hoyer said he expects committees to continue working remotely in the interim on the next coronavirus response and that lawmakers would be summoned back to Washington to vote on the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. He acknowledged that some House members expressed qualms about returning to Washington indefinitely without firm plans for the next bill.
“We will come back very soon,” he said.
Pelosi said she is not concerned that the House might be outmaneuvered on the next coronavirus relief package by dint of staying home while the Republican-led Senate is in session.
“We can’t be bothered about whether we’re disadvantaged to the Senate,” she said on a media conference call organized by the AFSCME union. “What we have to be bothered about is the health and safety of the workers in the Capitol of the United States as we do the work for the American people.”