WASHINGTON – The Senate reopened Monday in a Capitol largely shuttered by the coronavirus, but prospects for quick action on a new aid package are uncertain with a deepening debate over how best to confront the deadly pandemic and its economic devastation.
The 100 senators are convening for the first time since March, while the House is staying away due to the health risks, as the conflicted Congress reflects an uneasy nation. The Washington area remains a virus hot spot under stay-home rules.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the session, defending his decision to focus the agenda on confirming President Donald Trump's nominees rather than the virus outbreak.
“We have important work to do for the nation,” McConnell said. He said the Senate would "show up for work like the essential workers that we are.”
Senate Republicans are trying to set the terms of debate, frustrated that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to fill up earlier aid bills with Democratic priorities. They’re reluctant to unleash federal funds beyond the nearly $3 trillion Congress already approved in virus relief and hope Trump's push to kick-start the economy will reduce the need for more aid. But Pelosi is marching ahead without them, assembling a new aid package that Democrats expect to unveil soon.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer decried bringing senators and staff back without confronting the crisis. He called it “one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history.”
For more than five weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has all but closed Congress, a longer absence than during the 1918 Spanish flu.
Senators returned to a changed place with new guidelines, including the recommendation that senators wear masks — blue face coverings were available for free, and being worn by staff. Senators were also told to keep their distance and leave most staff at home. Public access is limited, including at public hearings. The Capitol itself remains closed to visitors and tours.
It’s not just lawmakers at risk. Reopening part of Capitol Hill poses health risks for the cooks, cleaners, police officers and other workers who keep the Capitol complex functioning.
Capitol Hill erupted late last week after the attending physician informed top GOP officials the health office did not have the means to perform instant virus tests on returning lawmakers or staff.
Over the weekend, Trump himself offered Congress access to 1,000 instant virus tests similar to a system used to screen visitors to the White House.
But in an extraordinary rebuff, McConnell and Pelosi said in a rare joint statement Saturday that they would “respectfully decline,” directing resources to the front lines. Lawmakers were wary of preferential treatment amid a national shortage of tests.
Trump huffed in a tweet Monday that Congress was essentially “saying that they are not ‘essential.’”
Democrats are eyeing a new aid package as states and cities seek as much as $1 trillion to prevent local layoffs and keep paying nurses, police, firefighters and other front-line workers as local revenues tank during the stay-home shutdown.
Pelosi said they may look at “guaranteed income” for those out of work, according to a person unauthorized to discuss a private Democratic conference call and granted anonymity.
But Republicans are counting on a reopened economy to reduce the need for more aid.
“We have to reopen our country,” Trump said during a town hall on the eve of the Senate's return, even as he revised upward his projection for the total U.S. death total to as much as 100,000.
Trump said any new package must have a payroll-tax holiday and McConnell insisted it also include liability protections for health care providers and reopened businesses.
As Congress struggles to fully resume during the pandemic, the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, proposed a new “hybrid” system for the still-shuttered chamber.
Under his plan, the full House should remain closed, but its committees could convene to craft legislation. He calls it the “crawl, walk, run” plan.
But the White House in seeking to limit administration officials' time at COVID-related hearings indicated in a memo Monday that any appearances by members of its coronavirus task force must be approved by Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows.
House Democrats proposed a new system of proxy voting. It would be a historic first for Congress, which under the Constitution expects lawmakers to be “present." But without Republican support the plans were shelved for more debate. The House's return date is not yet set.
In the Senate, McConnell has loaded up the schedule with hearings for Trump's nominees, including Justin Walker, a conservative, McConnell-backed pick to be a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, which is seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
A nomination hearing also is scheduled for John Ratcliffe, the Texas Republican congressman who is Trump’s choice to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
On Monday, senators confirmed Robert J. Feitel to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Kevin Freking and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.