Chaotic week greets lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill as the pandemic continues

Agenda includes defense authorizations and multiple spending bills

An empty hallway is pictured in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Both chambers return from recess this week to a busy agenda.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An empty hallway is pictured in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Both chambers return from recess this week to a busy agenda. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 20, 2020 at 5:00am

Both chambers return Monday for a frenetic week of legislating, highlighted by the annual defense authorization bills in both the Senate and the House and a bundle of spending bills in the House. And the schedule could change depending on the still developing funeral arrangements for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

The Senate began floor consideration of the fiscal 2021 Pentagon policy bill before departing for the Independence Day recess, reaching an agreement for votes on six amendments to the sweeping measure before trying to limit debate on the underlying measure.

The headline amendment is a bipartisan offering led by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, that seeks to restrict the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement authorities.

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The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the same legislation headlines a complicated week on the House floor.

In a normal legislative week, consideration of the NDAA would have consumed most of the House floor time. This week, however, it’s just one of many bills on a packed floor agenda as Democrats try to catch up on weeks missed at the start of the pandemic while keeping on schedule for August recess.

House NDAA consideration will kick off the week on Monday, with final passage expected Tuesday.

Wednesday is the busiest day, with four bills on the floor. Two of the bills had been on the House’s agenda for March before the coronavirus pandemic upset the schedule. The No Ban Act would repeal the administration’s Muslim travel ban and prohibit other travel bans based on race or religion.

The Access to Counsel Act would ensure that immigrants and refugees trying to enter the United States with proper documentation have the ability to consult with counsel when subject to inspection.

A Senate-passed lands bill that would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund will also get a vote Wednesday. Lawmakers in both parties are using the measure as part of their reelection campaigns.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has already cut an ad touting his role in passing the lands bill in the Senate.

In the House, a much longer list of vulnerable incumbents were among the original co-sponsors pushing the measure: Democratic Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, TJ Cox of California, Jared Golden of Maine, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, as well as Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and John Katko and Lee Zeldin of New York.

The fourth bill the House is voting on Wednesday is one Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn are leading with Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass and members Barbara Lee and Bennie Thompson to remove Confederate statues and busts, as well as those representing people who were involved in promoting slavery but did not fight for the Confederacy, from the Capitol.

“Some statues and other honorifics to John C. Calhoun in my home state of South Carolina are already coming down. Those of us who serve in this august body must lead by example as well and remove the Calhoun statue and others who represented similarly destructive and divisive views of their fellow Americans,” Clyburn said in a statement.

The House will wrap up its busy week Thursday and Friday by starting floor debate on the fiscal 2021 appropriations bills. The chamber plans to vote on most of the 12 bills in two packages.

The four-bill package the House will vote on Friday contains the State and Foreign Operations, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and Interior and Environment measures.

The House will continue its partially remote operations, with members permitted to vote by proxy on the House floor. Efforts to maintain social distancing to try to limit exposure to the virus will likely lead to more prolonged votes.

Off the floor, discussions will continue on what to include in the next phase of coronavirus aid legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at numerous events in his home state of Kentucky last week that he planned to share his proposals for the next package with his colleagues upon returning to Washington.

As lawmakers debate what should be in the next round of coronavirus relief, several committees continue to hold hearings on legislative and oversight matters related to combating the pandemic.

Among the hearings in the House, the Oversight and Reform Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Tuesday will hold a hearing on “the urgent need for a national plan to contain the coronavirus.”

On Thursday, the Education and Labor Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee will examine obstacles to reopening public schools. The Financial Services Committee will hold a full committee hearing that day on aspects of Democrats’ relief plan to help the economy recover.

Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was being blocked from testifying at the hearing on getting students back to school.

“It is alarming that the Trump administration is preventing the CDC from appearing before the Committee at a time when its expertise and guidance is so critical to the health and safety of students, parents, and educators. This lack of transparency does a great disservice to the many communities across the country facing difficult decisions about reopening schools this fall,” the Virginia Democrat said in a statement Friday.

The Senate hearings related to the pandemic include an Aging Committee hearing Tuesday about the effects on senior citizens and one the same day with the Commerce Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee on coronavirus-related scams.

There is also an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday on the effects of the pandemic on the country’s national parks and other public lands.

The Rules and Administration Committee is planning a hearing on Wednesday on preparations for the 2020 election, which will assuredly include discussions about the role of the abundance of mail-in and absentee ballots that will be required because of the pandemic.

The first Senate floor vote of the week Monday evening will be on final confirmation of Russell Vought to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. He has held that role in an acting capacity ever since Mick Mulvaney became the acting White House chief of staff.