Weighing the risks, the U.S. Senate will reopen on Monday as the coronavirus crisis rages and the House stays shuttered, an approach that leaves Congress as divided as the nation.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to convene 100 senators at the Capitol during a pandemic gives U.S. President Donald Trump the imagery he wants of America getting back to work, despite health worries and a lack of testing.
Yet, the Washington region remains under stay-at-home orders as a virus hot spot. Gathering senators for the first time since March risks lawmakers as well the cooks, cleaners, police officers and other workers who keep the lights on at the Capitol complex.
“We will continue to stand together for the American people — even as we stand 6 feet apart,” McConnell said ahead of the opening.
Trump himself offered Congress access to the instant virus test system used to screen visitors to the White House. But in an extraordinary rebuff, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Saturday that they would “respectfully decline” the offer and instead direct resources to the front lines “where they can do the most good.”
For Senate Republicans, returning to session is an attempt to set the terms of debate as Democrats push for another pricey coronavirus relief bill. Frustrated after Pelosi boosted Democratic priorities in earlier aid packages, an unprecedented $3 trillion in emergency spending, they are resisting more. Republicans are counting on the country’s reopening and an economic rebound as their best hope to limit a new round of big spending on virus aid.
As the Senate gavels in and the 430-member House stays away on the Capitol physician’s advice, the Congress provides a snapshot of divided America struggling to confront the COVID-19 crisis. Some states are reopening, others are staying closed and questions abound.
Senators face few new rules for operating in the pandemic beyond the recommendations that they wear masks — blue face coverings will be available for free — keep their distance and leave most staff at home. Hand sanitizer is back in stock. But public access will be limited, including at public hearings. The Capitol itself remains closed to visitors and tours.
Democrats complain they are returning to a noticeably light agenda, packed with confirmation hearings for Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominees, but with little emphasis on the pandemic and Great Depression-level economic collapse.
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“Democrats are going to fight like hell,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on a conference call with Latino leaders. “We’re going to make sure people have enough money to live and get back on their feet.”
In making his snap decision to return, McConnell said the Senate cannot “sit on the sidelines.” He compared the senators to the essential work force of grocery clerks, truck drivers and others keeping Americans fed during the crisis.