Road ahead: Coronavirus causing scheduling havoc, but Senate presses ahead with other business

HELP chairman, witnesses will appear remotely after potential exposure

Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander is self-quarantining in Tennessee this week. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander is self-quarantining in Tennessee this week. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:49pm

The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to cause havoc for the congressional schedule, with many senators still reporting to the Capitol despite risks to themselves and others.

And the House could come in for a single day this week to hold votes on coronavirus relief legislation Democrats are preparing and a rules package to allow members to remotely participate in House votes and committee meetings.

The Senate’s immediate legislative priority this week is not pandemic response, even as a key committee chairman and all the government witnesses he had called will be appearing remotely at a Tuesday hearing about the process for safely getting back to school and to work.

Rather, this is the week that the Senate is expected to clear a bill to revive and overhaul some surveillance authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The measure was left behind when Congress departed abruptly as the coronavirus began to spread.

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Under a prior agreement, a trio of amendments are in order, along with potential side-by-side counterproposals from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or a senator of his choosing. The Kentucky Republican said last week that his goal is for the measure to pass without any amendments being adopted. He reiterated that during his floor remarks Monday when the chamber reconvened.

“While COVID-19 rightly dominates headlines around the world, the United States of America also faces many serious threats before us, threats before this virus began to spread, and they are still with us today,” he said.

He called consideration of the reauthorization “urgent” and emphasized that the bill was “negotiated exhaustively” to produce a bipartisan agreement.

The adoption of any amendment would require the FISA legislation to return to the House, where timing would be unclear since its members are still in their home districts and generally away from the Capitol.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Monday mocked McConnell’s agenda.

“Looking at the Senate calendar, you’d never know that we’re working in the midst of a national crisis,” the New York Democrat said on the floor. “It looks like any other session. A few executive nominations, hearings on right-wing judges, legislation from previous months that the leader should not have delayed. It’s just totally, totally divorced from reality. Despite the obvious health risks, senators are ready to do our jobs. Why don’t we actually do our jobs and focus on COVID-19?”

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hosts the headline hearing for the week, though it will appear even more socially distanced than the chamber’s hearings last week, which featured a combination of in-person and videoconferencing participation.

HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced over the weekend that all four administration witnesses, some of whom are the government’s most recognizable surrogates on the pandemic response, would be testifying by videoconference.

The witnesses are National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.

As members of the White House coronavirus task force, any of the four may have had exposure to the virus while on the White House grounds, something that came to light after a spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, the task force’s leader, and a valet for President Donald Trump tested positive.

Later Sunday, Alexander’s office said the senator himself would be staying at home in Tennessee and chairing the HELP hearing remotely, after his own potential exposure to the virus. (A staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.)

“After discussing this with the Senate’s attending physician, Senator Alexander, out of an abundance of caution, has decided not to return to Washington, D.C., and will self-quarantine in Tennessee for 14 days,” his office said in a statement. “Almost all of the senator’s Washington, D.C., staff are working from home, and there is no need for any other staff member to self-quarantine.”

It was only last week that Alexander came out strongly for more rapid testing in Congress, saying members would be uniquely effective infection vectors considering their travel and exposure to the public.

Hypothetical House

The earliest the House would vote on either the remote voting measure or the next COVID-19 relief package would be Friday. House leaders are waiting to schedule the votes until the coronavirus aid measure is finalized.

“Pending introduction of legislation, it is possible that the House may meet this week, no earlier than Friday, May 15, 2020,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said in a notice to lawmakers Monday. “Members will be given 72-hours’ notice of when they would need to return to Washington, DC.”

That means in all likelihood that if the relief bill is not ready Tuesday, leaders will push votes off until next week.

Democrats are conducting intraparty negotiations over the latest bill, which is expected to include roughly $1 trillion in state and local funding, additional money for coronavirus testing and tracing, and funding for a variety of other party priorities, including the U.S. Postal Service and a nationwide vote-by-mail mandate for the presidential election.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has led negotiations with congressional Democrats on previous relief packages, on Monday reiterated Trump’s view that any further aid to states must be narrowly tailored to win GOP support.

“I’ve heard very clearly from the president and the Republicans that we are not bailing out state pensions and other things,” Mnuchin told CNBC. “[Democrats] want to throw a lot of money at this problem, but I think it’s very clear, there is not going to be bipartisan support that bails out states from previous problems.”

The House rules package may also be partisan. A six-member bipartisan task force is still negotiating potential rule changes to allow for remote committee and floor operations, but absent an agreement, Hoyer has said the House will vote on the Democrats’ plan.

Democrats have already put forth a proposal to temporarily authorize committees to conduct hearings and markups remotely and allow absentee members to designate a member to serve as their proxy for voting on the floor during the pandemic.

Republicans did not like that plan but have yet to reach agreement with Democrats on a bipartisan alternative.

Even if the House does not return for votes this week, there will be at least a few members on Capitol Hill as the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee conducts a hearing Thursday in the Rayburn Building on “protecting scientific integrity in the COVID-19 response.”

The panel has invited Rick Bright, the ousted director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at the National Institutes of Health, to testify about his whistleblower complaint that alleges he was pressured to make decisions based on politics over science.

Other House committees are continuing to hold virtual forums in place of physical committee hearings.

For example, the Homeland Security panel on Monday afternoon convened its seventh in a series of hearings about the coronavirus.

Monday’s forum, led by Democratic Reps. Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, was focused on how misinformation and conspiracies have disseminated on media platforms and how policymakers can respond.

Other Senate action

Senate committees other than HELP are also holding a mix of in-person and remote forums.

The Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee has a remote hearing on Tuesday with financial regulators.

The Judiciary Committee has a Tuesday afternoon hearing on shields from coronavirus-related legal liability. McConnell and other senior Republicans have insisted on liability protections for businesses in the next bipartisan COVID-19 response legislation.

Other Senate committees will be conducting hearings both on oversight of the coronavirus response within their jurisdiction and on more routine matters throughout the week.

Kathleen Bever contributed to this report.