Senators return to the Capitol Monday – many anxious about their safety as the coronavirus spreads – to tackle partisan disputes over additional legislation to combat the health and economic impact of the outbreak as well as the fates of two high-profile Trump administration nominees, one to lead the intelligence agencies and a second to join a powerful appeals court.
Members of the House will work from their districts this week, following the guidance of the Capitol’s attending physician that it’s too dangerous for 435 lawmakers and theirs staffs to crowd into the tight corridors on the House side of the Hill, especially as the number of cases in Washington, DC, is expected to peak in the coming days. The House is prepared to come back next week, if they have another coronavirus bill to approve, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will defy concerns because if doctors, nurses, delivery drivers and grocery clerks are essential, so are the 100 US senators, and routines will be modified to ensure safety.
When most senators left Washington almost six weeks ago, for an extended recess that was designed to give the virus time to subside, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths were a fraction of what they are now. McConnell and Pelosi “respectfully” declined an offer from the Trump administration to deploy rapid coronavirus testing capabilities to Capitol Hill.
Special rules governing social distancing in the Capitol will be enforced, including limiting the number of senators on the floor at a time during votes and ensuring doorways aren’t crowded. Committees will be assigned the largest rooms available to conduct hearings, and face masks, which were barely seen in the Capitol at the end of March, will now be expected to be worn by all. However, US Capitol Police may ask people entering buildings to lower their masks in order to be identified, according to a notification from the Sergeant at Arms.
Amid the real health concerns and political tension, House and Senate negotiators must find common ground if they are going to pass anther coronavirus response bill. Even with the House out of session, those initial talks – posturing, at least – will begin in earnest this week. Congress has already approved about $3 trillion in relief since the onset of the pandemic but most lawmakers believe more help is needed. Republicans and Democrats disagree about how much to spend and how to spend it, and the administration has given mixed signals as to what, if anything, more should be done right now.
Democrats, who control the House and can filibuster bills in the Senate, are eyeing up to another $1 trillion to assist state and local governments, which they say have been crippled by the outbreak. But Republican leaders in the Senate are unlikely to go along with such a big figure. “Pretty outrageous,” is how GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas described it last week. McConnell charged that much of the money is desired by Democratic-led states that want help with their mismanaged budgets and pension obligations, an assertion Democratic governors called outrageous.
Republicans are insisting any new legislation must include liability reforms to protect health care providers and other businesses against what they fear will be a post-virus rush of litigation by lawyers trying to exploit the crisis. Democrats have chastised Republicans for pursuing such reforms, calling them unacceptable: “This idea of an absolute blanket shield from any legal responsibility for businesses is going to be a nonstarter,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.
In addition to more funding, Senate Democrats are calling for oversight hearings to examine how effectively the Trump administration is spending the money already approved. They are also pushing Republicans to pass a national strategy to improve testing for coronavirus.
Congressional Democrats are furious the White House blocked the appearance of coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci before a House oversight hearing Wednesday, even as they accepted an invitation for him to appear next week before the GOP-led Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Tuesday for Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas to the Director of National Intelligence, a critical post overseeing the many agencies that make up the Intelligence Community.
Ratcliffe was initially nominated to the post last year but withdrew after a storm of bipartisan criticism that he did not have a strong enough intelligence background and might be too loyal to Trump to be an effective teller of truth.
Ratcliffe was a vocal defender of Trump during the impeachment proceedings and was re-nominated. This time, he has the support of Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, something that may help him win the job even if there are still doubts about his qualifications. The open hearing, set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, is likely to be contentious.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Judge Justin Walker for a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, often called the second most powerful court in the land.
Walker, a protégé of McConnell’s, has drawn the ire of Democrats who accuse the majority leader of packing the federal judiciary with young conservative judges who will serve for decades. Walker was first confirmed to be a judge on the District Court in Western Kentucky late last year. Despite clerking for both Brett Kavanaugh, when the now-Supreme Court justice served on the DC Circuit Court, and for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Harvard-trained Walker was declared not qualified by the American Bar Association when he was seeking confirmation last year because the then-37-year-old didn’t have enough courtroom experience.
Democrats will try to rough up Walker at his confirmation hearing, but with Senate rules only requiring a simple majority vote for confirmation, there is little they can do to stop him.
The Senate Banking Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Brian Miller to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery at the Treasury Department on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.
The health subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. on “COVID-19 Response” with former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Friedman and others testifying. This is the hearing where the White House prevented Fauci from appearing.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Kenneth Braithwaite to be Secretary of the Navy on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
The Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing for James Trainor to be a member of the Federal Election Commission on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
The Senate HELP Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m. to examine new ideas for defeating coronavirus. Witnesses include Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, and Gary Disbrow, the acting director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at the Health and Human Services Department.
The Senate is in session Monday at 3 p.m. with a vote at 5:30 p.m. to confirm Robert Feitel to be Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Haley Byrd contributed to this story.