With coronavirus infections in the Washington, D.C., area on the rise and the House and Supreme Court exercising caution about exposing their members and staff, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to reconvene the Senate on Monday is sparking worries about the risks of doing so.
Despite concerns from Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court, McConnell told Fox News that the Senate can “modify routines” in “smart and safe” ways while still conducting in-person business. The Kentucky Republican broke out a familiar line of reasoning by saying he plans to focus floor action on confirmations that “have been bottled up by the Democrats even before the pandemic.”
Earlier this week, after consulting with Monahan, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer canceled plans for his chamber to reconvene Monday.
Several Democrats pointed out that Washington currently has a stay-at-home order in place through May 15 and asking 100 senators to return also requires staff, Capitol employees, reporters and others to travel to work, increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he was not consulted by McConnell about whether to return and wasn’t sure if McConnell consulted with medical experts.
The Senate’s focus should be on overseeing the trillions of dollars in aid passed to help Americans dealing with the COVID-19 illness, Schumer said, “not focused on putting in right-wing judges who have been called unqualified by the [American Bar Association].” That was ostensibly a reference to a potential confirmation hearing next week for District Judge Justin Walker, a McConnell protégé nominated by President Donald Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
For context, with more than 60,000 COVID-19-related deaths, more American have now died from the coronavirus than U.S. servicemembers in the Vietnam War. Some Democrats said significant legislation, like the recent coronavirus relief packages, can be moved by unanimous consent, allowing senators to remain at home.
But McConnell has been unmoved by such calls for caution and has utilized a talking point that is becoming common among Republicans.
“If it’s essential for doctors, nurses, health care workers, truck drivers and grocery store workers and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations during the pandemic, then it is essential for senators to carefully man ours and support them,” he said.
Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn told reporters Thursday he expects to get further guidance from McConnell.
“Obviously, we know we have to be careful, and following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Monahan, the attending physician, I think we can safely operate,” he said.
Schumer, on a Thursday press call, said he would examine McConnell’s guidelines on how to keep people on the Hill safe “very carefully.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, meanwhile, praised her fellow California Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Hoyer for “heeding this public health advice and … setting the right example for the country.”
One of the biggest complaints from Democrats is the lack of coronavirus-related legislation on the Senate’s agenda for next week.
On Monday, the chamber is scheduled to convene at 3 p.m. to debate the nomination of Robert J. Feitel to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A confirmation vote is currently scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a Tuesday morning confirmation hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to be director of national intelligence.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary has scheduled a nomination hearing for Wednesday, but no nominees have yet been announced. Of the 82 vacancies in the federal judiciary, there are 43 pending nominations.
“To date, at least one senator, eight Capitol Police officers and 11 workers with the Architect of the Capitol have tested positive for the virus,” Feinstein said in a statement. “As Dr. Monahan convinced leaders in the House, returning the Senate for non-essential business is not worth the risk.”
But Cornyn said staying at home would be inconsistent with the reality of how the Senate does its job.
“We can’t hold any committee hearings. We can’t have votes on other things on the Senate floor,” Cornyn said. “I don’t see what the objection is to being here and doing our job.”