Despite Coronavirus Risks, The U.S. Senate Returns For Normal Business

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 2:08 pm

Updated at 1:54 p.m. ET

Though the coronavirus remains a serious threat in Washington, D.C., U.S. senators return to the Capitol from their home states on Monday, more than five weeks after their last formal gathering and roll call votes.

"All across our nation, American workers in essential sectors are following expert advice and taking new precautions while they continue reporting for duty and performing irreplaceable work their country needs," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Friday. "Starting Monday, the Senate will do the same."

That means up to 100 senators — along with their staffs, support workers, official visitors and others — will return to the Capitol building, with some new health guidelines.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser noted recently that members of Congress are considered essential workers. As a result, Congress doesn't have to adhere to her stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential businesses. The Capitol complex is closed to public tours until at least May 16.

The Senate's return will also start a new wave of worries about more coronavirus infections on Capitol Hill, where dozens of workers, staffers and members of Congress have already been sickened or quarantined.

McConnell, R-Ky., has led efforts to resume Senate business over the objections of some members. The chamber is slated to consider several presidential nominations this week, including a confirmation vote for an agency official Monday.

Democrats have said the move could put those in the Capitol complex and beyond in danger. They have also said the Senate should narrow its legislative focus to coronavirus aid or its oversight. The Democratic-led House is not returning this week.

After approving about $3 trillion in aid so far, Republicans and Democrats are split on a new infusion of cash into the badly strained economy. Democrats say state and local governments should be the priority, while Republicans are holding out for new liability protections for businesses.

"Senate Republicans should be laser focused on the health and economic crises caused by COVID-19, not confirming right-wing judges or protecting big business from legal liability," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hold a press conference on April 21.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

McConnell, Pelosi say no thanks to White House tests

On Friday, McConnell shared new Senate guidelines from Brian Monahan, the attending physician to Congress, to avoid gatherings and wear masks when possible. The guidelines also advise members and others to maintain 6 feet of distance, limit staff and visitors in offices, and participate in health monitoring programs.

"I strongly urge my colleagues to consult these guidelines as we carefully resume in-person work," McConnell said.

But like much of the rest of the country, there is no widespread testing program on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, none of the new Senate safety measures are mandatory.

"I think this is crazy. I really do," Dr. David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, said after reviewing Monahan's guidance. "We don't want them to have to undertake the kinds of risks that put not only themselves in grave jeopardy, but others. And furthermore, we want them to be role models and they are not behaving as role models when they undertake this kind of convening in large numbers."

Late Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the agency would send 1,000 coronavirus tests to Congress. President Trump lauded the move.

But on Saturday, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a rare joint statement, declining the offer and saying the tests should be directed to front-line workers since national testing access remains limited.

Still, Relman says, the current parameters for the Senate's return signal a misunderstanding of the measures required for essential workers to protect themselves and others. And that includes a clear plan for testing.

"I'm just having a hard time here, understanding what the rationale is and how this can be good for our nation," said Relman, who is also chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in California. "These essential workers are not embracing the known measures that will reduce risks down to some reasonable level for them. It's sort of capricious and dangerous."

Also, with the average age of the Senate above 60, the dangers are even higher, Relman said. Members will carry different levels of risk of exposure depending on which region they'll travel to and from.

He pointed to the Canadian and British parliaments as better models, where government leaders have installed remote meeting options. Such a move has been blocked in the Senate by McConnell and remains under debate in the House.

Without remote plans, members and others meeting in person in Congress should be tested twice a week and adhere to weekly antibody tests, Relman said. Social distancing requirements should also be mandatory, he added.

Meanwhile, it could be weeks before senators find out the impacts of meeting in person, since the illness can have a lengthy incubation period.

"It's a huge ripple effect that has ramifications for lots of people, including many other members of the very same body of political leaders that they have suggested are essential," Relman said.

Stalled coronavirus aid negotiations

The Senate will take up the nomination of Robert Feitel to be the next inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday. On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear from Trump's nominee for director of national intelligence, Republican Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe.

It's a reminder that the Senate's focus remains on regular business since new coronavirus aid talks are stalled.

One key hangup: McConnell and other Republicans are pushing for new liability protections for businesses in a next wave of funding. Democrats are opposed.

"Senate and House Republicans agree these protections will be absolutely essential to future discussions surrounding recovery legislation," McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a joint statement.

But Democrats say state and local governments facing dire financial shortfalls are the priority. Pelosi said a plan could total nearly $1 trillion to keep critical front-line workers such as first responders and nurses from losing their jobs.

"They are risking their lives to save lives, and now, they're going to lose their jobs. It is just stunning, and we have to address it," Pelosi told reporters recently.

Larger House delays return

The House was slated to return as well on Monday, but Democratic leaders reversed course after consulting with Monahan, the attending physician.

Now, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is seeking new advice from Monahan on how the House can return safely. Until then, members are meeting remotely or holding hearings when possible. Talks are also underway for the House to consider new options for remote voting and hearings.

Earlier last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., raised concerns during a caucus call about returning the chamber's more than 400 members, plus thousands of staff, to Washington, D.C., in the midst of the pandemic.

She was pleased at leadership's later reversal on the plans.

"I'm proud that our House leadership struck a balance between staff and member safety, with a desire to urgently address America's dire health and economic crisis," Wasserman Schultz said. "A safe, well-thought-out re-entry to the workplace is something every American wants right now, and our House Democratic leaders recognize that."

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U.S. senators come back to Washington today after a long break because of COVID-19. They'll start work tonight. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is following this one. Good morning, Claudia.


KING: So Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been very eager to get the Senate back to work. Tell me some of what he's been saying.

GRISALES: He said it's time to get back to work for the American people. Here he is on Friday on WKYX radio in Kentucky.


MITCH MCCONNELL: My view is this if doctors and nurses show up and people in the grocery stores manning the grocery stores show up so that we can keep the food supply going, the Senate can show up.

GRISALES: He shared new health guidelines on Friday from the attending physician to Congress. That includes avoid gatherings and wearing masks when possible, maintaining 6 feet of distance, limiting their staff and visitors in their offices and taking their temperatures before they come in. But we should note these are just suggestions. And there won't be widespread testing.

KING: Won't be widespread testing. So some of the measures that they're talking about - wearing masks, avoiding gatherings - is the things that all of us are doing. And yet, there are people who think the Senate coming back, in particular, is a really bad idea. What are they arguing?

GRISALES: Yes, they are worried about the repercussions. I spoke with Dr. David Relman. He's a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. And he said he thought the plan was, quote, "crazy" and the measures should be mandatory, not voluntary. Here's what he told me.

DAVID RELMAN: In this particular case, these essential workers are not embracing the known measures that will reduce risks down to some reasonable level for them. I think it's sort of capricious and dangerous.

GRISALES: Dr. Relman added that the average age of the Senate is over 60. And several senators are over 80. And we know risk increases with age. And then again, there's this lack of widespread testing to know who among the senators or their staff or even the Capitol workers might be infected in these close quarters. And this is part of a persistent problem nationally, of course. And with the incubation period of this illness, the Senate may not find out about a problem until it's too late. And over the weekend, the Trump administration offered for a thousand tests to go to Congress. But in a rare statement, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they declined the offer and these tests should go to front-line workers. So that means a Senate will be running quite a gamble when they convene this afternoon. And they may not find out how risky that gamble is until weeks from now.

KING: Oh, dear. Well, you know, the argument that Mitch McConnell is making is fundamentally not a medical argument. He's saying the Senate has work to do. What's the work that he's talking about?

GRISALES: So that's another point of contention. McConnell is focused on approving nominations from President Trump for various agency posts. Today, he has a vote scheduled on the inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also wants the Senate to take up other nominees for President Trump. Later this week, a Senate panel will take up the nomination of Texas Representative John Ratcliffe to become the next director of national intelligence. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, says the Senate should be focused on coronavirus aid and its oversight, not these nominations. But McConnell wants any new legislation to include new liability protections for businesses. This is something Democrats are opposed to. They want aid for state and local governments facing budget shortfalls. So this return to regular business highlights how these negotiations have stalled over a next package.

KING: And before I let you go, this, we should note, is just the Senate, right? The House has said we're not coming back.

GRISALES: Exactly. They reversed course. They were due to return, but they postponed plans. This was after hearing from the attending physician. And, of course, the House is much larger, so that would bring back hundreds more people to the Capitol, and it was a scenario they wanted to avoid for now.

KING: Fair enough, worse odds. NPR's Claudia Grisales. Claudia, thanks.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.