Road ahead: Congress rushing on coronavirus relief but pausing to honor John Lewis

House will also take up appropriations and Judiciary panel will quiz Barr

The hearse carrying the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., moves up Independence Avenue as it makes its way to the East Front Plaza of the Capitol on Monday, July 27, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The hearse carrying the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., moves up Independence Avenue as it makes its way to the East Front Plaza of the Capitol on Monday, July 27, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 27, 2020 at 4:40pm, Updated at 8:25pm

Congress is racing to finish negotiations on another coronavirus relief package as jobless benefits are set to expire this week, but lawmakers are carving out time to honor John Lewis as he lies in state at the Capitol.

Lewis’ casket arrived in the Capitol Rotunda at 2:06 p.m. Monday, a few hours before Senate Republicans released the seven coronavirus relief bills they’ve been working on with the Trump administration.

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“Together their bills make up the HEALS Act — that’s health, economic assistance, liability protection and schools,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in floor remarks summarizing the package. The Kentucky Republican said his conference had introduced a “framework to help our nation” but acknowledged it would take bipartisanship to get a bill signed into law. Several members of his own conference have already signaled their opposition, putting a premium on such bipartisan talks not just with the House but within his own chamber.

“It’s likely that you’ll see a number of Republicans in opposition to this bill and expressing serious concerns,” Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said, arguing the measure wrongly focused on relief instead of recovery.

[What to know as Congress honors John Lewis amid a pandemic]

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday morning called on GOP leaders and administration officials to join her and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in her office “within a half an hour of releasing their plan” to begin bipartisan negotiations. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with the Democratic leaders Monday evening about an hour after the bills were unveiled.

Meadows said afterward that it was a “good meeting” and that he and Mnuchin would be back Tuesday at the Capitol for further negotiations. Democrats were more critical. Schumer said they were “somewhat frustrated” with the GOP’s piecemeal proposal, while Pelosi called it “pathetic.”

“If they’re not getting to the fundamentals of food and rent and economic survival, they’re not really ready to have a serious negotiation,” Pelosi said.

Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits Congress passed as part of a March relief package expire Friday, and the parties are still at odds over what a continuation of benefits should look like. Democrats want to extend the existing $600 federal benefit, while Republicans want to move to a new formula that would limit benefits to 70 percent of a worker’s income at time of layoff.

Unemployment is just one of several components of the relief bill dividing Democrats and Republicans. Others include aid for state and local governments, liability protections and U.S. Postal Service and election funding.

Negotiators are hoping to strike a bipartisan deal this week, with votes in both chambers not expected until next week at the earliest.

The House is currently scheduled to finish its pre-August recess legislative work on Friday but will either hang around until a relief package is ready or return for a vote once one passes the Senate.

The chamber is squeezing most of its work into the latter half of the week, with floor activity suspended while Lewis lies in state in the Rotunda and on the East Front steps for public viewing.

New Smithsonian museum

Before Lewis’ casket arrived Monday, the House held a brief session to pass two bills under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage.

One of the bills, passed by voice vote, would add a National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian Institution. The measure, sponsored by retiring New York Democrat José E. Serrano, would establish a board of regents and instruct it to select a site for the museum within two years of the bill’s enactment. The measure offers four potential sites around the National Mall for the board to consider.

Serrano and other Congressional Hispanic Caucus members say they’ve been working on establishing such a museum for 20 years. The measure now heads to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

“Latinos have fought in every U.S. war. Food and music from Latin America are enjoyed in every American city. American Latinos are parents, veterans, teachers, activists, innovators, artists, scientists, business owners, immigrants, patriots and so much more,” Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a statement. “The Latino story is an American story, and our history is a central thread in the history of our nation.”

The other bill the House passed Monday would create a 19-member national commission to “conduct a systematic study of the conditions affecting Black men and boys, including homicide rates, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, violence, fatherhood, mentorship, drug abuse, death rates, disparate income and wealth levels, school performance in all grade levels including postsecondary education and college, and health issues.”

Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the bill’s lead co-sponsors, modeled the commission off one Florida established when they served in the state Legislature together.

While there was some discussion of the bill being part of a broader policing overhaul, Congress decided not to let the bipartisan commission bill get caught up in the partisanship of that debate. The measure passed the Senate by voice vote last month. The House passed it 368-1. Alabama Republican Mo Brooks was the lone “no” vote.

[Congress pays respects to ‘revered and beloved’ John Lewis]

The House on Monday also voted by unanimous consent to rename for Lewis the bill it passed last year to update the Voting Rights Act.

That occurred right before the chamber adjourned, roughly an hour before the private arrival ceremony in the Rotunda where lawmakers got an opportunity to pay their respects to Lewis before his casket was moved to the East Front steps for public viewing.

“It is fitting that today as we memorialize John Lewis in the Capitol Rotunda, we honor his memory by renaming this legislation with which he is so closely identified,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, who led the renaming effort, said in a statement.

No holds Barr

The House has no votes set for Tuesday, but there will be major action at its Judiciary Committee, with Attorney General William Barr finally showing up for an oversight hearing Democrats wanted to have months ago.

There are many topics Democrats want to grill Barr about but atop the list are actions they say show Barr is misusing the Justice Department to support President Donald Trump’s reelection and personal interests. That includes Barr’s role in federal officers using tear gas to disperse protesters at Lafayette Park near the White House ahead of a Trump photo op while holding a Bible; the administration’s expanding use of federal officers in cities such as Portland, Oregon; and criticisms about how Barr removed the federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where there are investigations that might affect Trump and his associates.

Barr also has a federal prosecutor investigating the origins of the DOJ’s Russia investigation and hinted that FBI officials might face charges ahead of the fall election. He could face questions about that, as well as the department’s decision to drop the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and to seek a reduced sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone for convictions that include lying to Congress about investigations focused on the president.

Child care help

When the House comes back into legislative session Wednesday, it will vote on two bills to help with child care during the pandemic.

One would provide $50 billion in child care block grants to states to help subsidize care for low-income families. The other would provide $10 billion in grants to renovate child care facilities, $850 million to help with caring for children of “essential” workers and an estimated $77 billion over a decade for child care funding administered by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It would also provide about $91 billion over a decade in tax benefits.

The House will also vote Wednesday on the Water Resources Development Act under suspension of the rules — a sign leaders are expecting broad bipartisan support.

On Thursday, as Lewis is laid to rest in Atlanta, the House will not vote before 6:30 p.m. to accommodate members traveling to Georgia for the funeral.

The business on the floor Thursday evening and Friday is a seven-bill appropriations package, containing the Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education and Transportation-HUD spending bills. It’s the second fiscal 2021 package the House is taking up.

The House passed a four-bill package funding other parts of the government last week. If congressional leaders keep the Homeland Security measure in the seven-bill package on the floor this week, then the only one of the 12 annual appropriations bills the House will not have passed before its August recess is the one covering the legislative branch.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has called for separate consideration of the Homeland Security spending bill unless leadership allows amendments to address “horrific violations of human rights and due process by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection] and other agencies,” including measures to prevent DHS officials from policing protests in cities like Portland.

“Without the inclusion of additional necessary reforms, we believe that the Democratic leadership should not attempt to pass Homeland Security funding by tying it to essential coronavirus research, education, and housing funding,” the caucus said in a statement.

The Senate, meanwhile, is back to spending its floor time on nominations after passing the annual defense authorization bill last week.

The chamber on Monday confirmed, 65-30, W. Scott Hardy to be U.S. district judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Other nominees being voted on this week include David C. Joseph to be U.S. district judge for the Western District of Louisiana and Dana T. Wade to be an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Todd Ruger, David Lerman, Jennifer Shutt, Chris Cioffi and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.