Road ahead: Senate returns to new coronavirus normal on Capitol Hill

Confirmations, hearings and possible action on FISA are expected in the Senate this week

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wears a mask Monday as the chamber reconvenes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wears a mask Monday as the chamber reconvenes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 4, 2020 at 5:27pm, Updated at 8:00pm

As the Senate convened Monday en masse for the first time in seven weeks, those who made the trip to Capitol Hill were greeted at security checkpoints by large yellow dots on the floor at six-foot intervals, printed with footprints and a message that read “Thanks for practicing social distancing.”

The echoing halls of the Senate, close to empty for weeks, sprung back to life as senators, a select few staffers and reporters returned to work, priming the pump for more nominees to be sent to the Senate floor. Nearly everyone at the Capitol wore masks, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But many Capitol Police officers stationed around campus opted not to.

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The vast majority of senators spotted by CQ Roll Call Monday wore masks, with one telling exception: Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt. The face covering-edict is a recommendation, not a requirement or a rule, and the Capitol Police will have no hand in enforcement.

Other lawmakers used their masks to rep their home states, with Alabama Republican Richard Shelby sporting a University of Alabama Crimson Tide-themed mask and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen wearing an orange, white and black Baltimore Orioles mask.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, told reporters it was “sobering” to be back at the Capitol.

She didn’t think it was smart for senators to fly in from across the country, but said she wasn’t overly concerned for the health of her colleagues being impacted by being in session.

“I’m sorry, I can't breathe in this thing,” she said, pulling a surgical mask away from her face while talking to reporters.

The House will remain dark this week over coronavirus concerns, but some members are expected to be working from Washington and a committee hearing and other business are expected to take place.

McConnell told Fox News last week that the Senate can “modify routines” in “smart and safe” ways while still conducting in-person business.

As the Senate opened Monday, McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, both thanked Capitol support staff for enabling the institution to ramp up, particularly with a mounting U.S. death toll from the virus nearing 70,000.

The day’s first order of business was consideration of the nomination of Robert J. Feitel to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and he sailed to confirmation by an 87-0 vote.

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Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday hearing on nominations. And the chamber could also act this week on a bill to overhaul and reauthorize certain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities.

Guidelines in Washington, provided by Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician, are a far cry from more stringent rules in places like the California Legislature. Those entering the Golden State’s Capitol building can expect to be greeted by health screening interviews and temperature checks, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In Washington, red “advisory” signs in the elevators encouraged riders to not shake hands, to stay home if they are sick, and to keep six feet apart, which is certainly impossible in some of the tiny antique elevators in the Capitol. California lawmakers, for instance, will only be allowed to use elevators one at a time.

An Architect of the Capitol worker places social distancing marks on the floor in the Senate subway area on Monday, May 4, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Guidance issued Friday by the attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, acknowledged that social distancing and other precautions would be more challenging to follow inside the Senate chamber itself. Fixed seating and structures on the dais won’t allow for clerks and others to spread out too much.

Senators in the chamber Monday were instructed to not approach the dais and to keep distance from one another.

Testing tussle

McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a rare joint statement over the weekend declining a White House offer for rapid-testing equipment, saying they should be directed to “front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly.”

Washington has a stay-at-home order through May 15, and is encouraging a COVID-19 test for “all individuals who share a common area such as a ward, unit, floor or restroom facilities, with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 in the facility.”

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who tested positive for the coronavirus in March, was around his Senate colleagues for several days between the test being administered and the positive result. Several Hill staffers, Architect of the Capitol contractors and Capitol Police officers have also tested positive.

President Donald Trump, fresh off a Fox News town hall Sunday where he acknowledged the U.S. pandemic death toll may reach 100,000, tweeted a response to McConnell and Pelosi, questioning their decision.

“Interesting? By Congress not wanting the special 5 minute testing apparatus, they are saying that they are not ‘essential’. In any event, we have great testing capacity, and have performed 6.5 million tests, which is more than every country in the world, combined,” Trump wrote.

Senate hearings

Several Senate committees are expected to meet this week on a range of topics, including coronavirus response, national security and nominations for the Senate floor.

Hearings in the U.S. Capitol will be much less stringent than in California, where witnesses may appear via videoconference and plexiglass panels may shield commenters in public seating from lawmakers.

Republicans on Senate Judiciary have not released a list of nominees yet for Wednesday’s hearing, but Justin Walker, a nominee for the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is expected to be on it. Walker, who earned a “Not Qualified” rating from the American Bar Association but has long enjoyed McConnell’s support, has been a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Kentucky for less than a year.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on the aviation industry, featuring industry leaders. Health officials are slated to testify Thursday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on new COVID-19 testing technology.

Intelligence action

It could be an especially busy week on the intelligence front, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for Tuesday on the nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence. The Texas Republican faces questions about his qualifications.

That’s not all. Before the COVID-19 response overtook all other legislation, the House had yet to pass a short-term extension of lapsed surveillance powers sent over by the Senate.

But with senators now back at the Capitol, the most efficient way to revive the authorizations would be through a House-passed FISA overhaul. The Justice Department is supportive of that compromise bill. It could reach the Senate floor as early as this week, under an earlier time agreement.

“The House legislation includes important reforms to FISA that address the problems uncovered by the Inspector General and others. It reauthorizes national security tools that have been essential to investigations involving terrorists or spies who pose a threat to U.S. national security,” John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “If these tools are not reauthorized we will be unable to use them in future investigations, leaving us all more vulnerable.”

Senate Intelligence member Susan Collins said she spoke with Ratcliffe on Friday.

“After questioning him in detail, I concluded that he does have the experience to meet the statutory standard to fill the position. His knowledge of cybersecurity is particularly important given the challenges our country faces,” the Maine Republican said in a statement.

House still at work

Even with the House still out, some business will continue.

Pelosi will be in the Capitol on Tuesday to swear in Kweisi Mfume, the Democrat elected last week to Maryland’s 7th District, filling the seat left vacant after Elijah E. Cummings died. Mfume previously represented the district before resigning in 1996 to head the NAACP.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies is holding a hearing Wednesday morning in Rayburn on the COVID-19 response with Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

That is the only official House hearing on the schedule so far this week, but the newly formed coronavirus select committee may hold its first meeting this week.

So far only Democrats have named members to the panel. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who does not believe the panel is necessary given other committees inside and outside Congress that have oversight responsibility over the administration of coronavirus relief, said he’ll decide this week whether to name Republicans to the select committee.

Other committees have been holding virtual forums since House rules prohibit them from holding official hearings without a physical presence. So far none have been scheduled for this week.

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.