The Senate and partisanship return to the Capitol

Lawmakers appear to be shifting priorities as election approaches

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso talks to reporters Tuesday, flanked by other members of Senate GOP leadership, including, from left, Roy Blunt, John Thune, Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst and Todd Young.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso talks to reporters Tuesday, flanked by other members of Senate GOP leadership, including, from left, Roy Blunt, John Thune, Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst and Todd Young. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:00am

ANALYSIS — It’s been two months since Speaker Nancy Pelosi rose in a closed-door meeting of Democrats to rebuke colleagues who wanted to leave the Capitol to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” she said March 10. The House held a roll call vote that Saturday, March 14, but has only returned since for votes on March 27 and April 23. Despite Pelosi's admonition, the normal work of the House — oversight hearings, markups, routine legislation — has ground to a halt.

Democrats are setting an example for Americans living under shelter-at-home orders and following the advice of Congress’ physician, but they’ve also hamstrung their ability to legislate and, during the week that just passed, allowed Republicans to pillory them for that failure.

“The Senate is here working. The House has decided to stay at home,” said Wyoming’s John Barrasso after Republican senators held their weekly policy lunch on May 5.

Pelosi is hoping to get back to work soon. She says she wants this week to approve a new rule allowing one representative to vote on behalf of a colleague who is not present, proxy voting, and to begin consideration of a fifth coronavirus relief bill.

[Coronavirus aid talks on pause, top White House official says]

While Republicans have mostly coalesced around the need for a “pause” in virus legislation to assess how well the first four laws Congress passed are working, Democrats say much more relief is needed. They also have numerous complaints about the existing laws’ implementation.

Democrats don’t like that publicly traded companies have gotten money from the nearly $670 billion Congress has allotted for forgivable small business loans in the Paycheck Protection Program and say more of the money should go to truly small firms. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer also demanded more accounting from the Trump administration about where the money is going, but he was rebuffed.

Democrats also regret a provision in the $2 trillion rescue law enacted at the end of March that permits the wealthy to shift losses across years, reducing their tax burdens. And they are feeling remorse over a restriction they demanded in designing the small business loan program that requires most of the money to go to payroll if firms want to have their loans forgiven. Shuttered restaurants are more concerned about paying their rent than paying their staff and say that makes the loans unappealing.

[Negotiators face more contentious issues than state, local aid]

The first four virus laws passed with near unanimity. A fifth would offer a chance to make adjustments. But the moments of bipartisan agreement are fleeting. Republicans say they could support the restaurants’ ask. And there’s bipartisan support for injecting more funding into rural broadband, so crucial to remote work and education. But a broader deal is proving elusive.

House Democrats want to spend billions to bolster states and localities facing an unprecedented drop in income from lost sales and income tax. They want more money for virus testing and a national program to trace infections. They want to expand nutrition assistance in the wake of a Brookings Institution report that found one in five young children in America is going hungry, more than three times the rate during the Great Recession. They want more money to help states implement voting by mail for November’s election, and they want to rescue the Postal Service, which lost nearly $9 billion last year and says it is facing a loss of more than $20 billion in this one.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says any new virus legislation from his chamber will include liability protections for reopening businesses fearful of lawsuits from customers and employees, a nonstarter for Democrats. President Donald Trump wants a payroll tax cut, but that idea isn’t resonating on Capitol Hill.

The dissension forebodes a shift in lawmakers’ priorities as the election approaches. There’s still a desire to help America weather the crisis, but there’s also a political imperative for those seeking another term in office.

Democrats appear content to allow Trump to grab the limelight, on the grounds that he has done himself no favors. Protecting the country from the virus was the executive’s job, and Trump has proved ill-suited to the task of leading the country through the crisis.

On the political question, Democrats sense an advantage. The most recent CQ Roll Call Capitol Insiders Survey of congressional aides found that 57 percent of the Democrats believe their party will gain a political edge from the pandemic, compared to only 15 percent of Republicans who expect their side will.

To reframe the issue, Republicans, in addition to deflecting blame to China, are painting Democrats as paralyzed by fear of the virus, and pointing out the apparent shift in Pelosi's own thinking on working inside the Capitol.

On McConnell's order, senators returned to Washington on May 4 to confirm an inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Robert J. Feitel, and William Evanina to lead the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. They also held hearings for several more crucial nominees, including Texas GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe, Trump’s choice for director of national intelligence, and Justin Walker, his pick to fill a seat on the federal appeals court in Washington. McConnell said senators were going to work “like the essential workers that we are.”

The CQ Roll Call survey, which drew responses from 170 aides, offered evidence that may bolster the GOP’s case. Nearly half of Democratic staffers said they would be willing to return to a congressional office this spring, on top of the 2 percent who said they already were working in one while the poll was in the field, from April 27 to May 4. That compared to 28 percent of the Democratic respondents who said they would not want to return to an office.

A greater share of Republicans said they would brave it, with 63 percent willing to go back to their workplace on top of 10 percent who said they already were doing so. Only 15 percent said they were uncomfortable with the idea.

Democratic lawmakers have retorted that it makes little sense to return to Washington merely to confirm judges and Trump administration appointees.

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told the CQ on Congress Coronavirus Special Report podcast that returning senators “should be conducting oversight of how the Trump administration has been dispersing the record amount of funds” appropriated in response to the virus. Confirmation of nominations “isn’t an urgent, essential function of Congress,” he said.

Loading the player...

It’s easy to understand Coons’ frustration, since confirmations that require a simple majority vote are a foregone conclusion in today’s Senate.

But it would be easy for the public to ask, in response, why House Democrats, who have the power to set an agenda, have not passed additional legislation to ramp up virus testing and tracing, or to bolster the American economy, and dare the Senate to shelve them?

Pelosi says that’s what she intends. But in the Senate, McConnell has given no hint that further virus legislation is imminent. Rather, he plans to take up legislation that passed the House in early March to overhaul domestic surveillance authorities used to combat terrorism. It would extend the authority for the government to access certain business records. Civil libertarians in both parties voted against the House measure, but it still passed overwhelmingly and GOP leaders support the measure in the Senate.

Other issues that were front of mind for lawmakers before the pandemic, such as bills to restrain rising drug prices and to end surprise medical billing — which occurs when patients incur emergency treatments from doctors outside their insurance networks — are now on the backburner.

In an ideal world, complex legislation goes through a rigorous committee process, and Congress is only beginning to see if it can hold effective hearings in the midst of a pandemic. Senate panels, including the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held live hearings last week. The Commerce panel examined the state of the airline industry, devastated by a more than 90 percent reduction in travel, while the HELP committee looked into testing for the coronavirus. Senators entered the room in groups of six or fewer and rotated through.

The functioning of committee hearings is all the more important, though, in the House, which wants to conduct oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the virus as well as the executive branch’s management of rescue funds.

There, with more members to fit into hearing rooms, the problem is more acute. How the House will manage remains to be seen. Turned down in their requests for testimony from top Trump administration officials — two of whom, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, will testify before the Senate HELP Committee on May 12 — the House is seeking other oversight witnesses.

The Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, chaired by California Democrat Anna G. Eshoo, expects to hear this week from Rick Bright, whom Trump ousted as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority last month. Bright says Trump dismissed him after Bright objected to the president’s touting of a malaria drug to treat the virus. It’s since proved ineffective. Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint saying the administration has steered government contracts to political allies.

For now, the bigger issue standing in the way of the House’s ability to function is an agreement on remote voting. Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Rules Committee, has proposed proxy voting. But Republicans objected last month and Pelosi responded by creating a panel comprised of Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, McGovern, Rules ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma and the two leaders of the Administration Committee, Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California and ranking Republican Rodney Davis of Illinois. Pelosi says she expects their plan soon.

The Capitol Insiders Survey found Democratic aides overwhelmingly in support of remote voting, with more than 3 in 4 saying as much, while Republican staffers were split almost evenly, with 43 percent in favor, and 39 percent not. The remainder were unsure.