House won't resume as planned next week due to virus risk

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes a question from a reporter during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pelosi shelved a proposal for proxy voting this week after Republicans objected.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes a question from a reporter during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pelosi shelved a proposal for proxy voting this week after Republicans objected. Associated Press/April 24, 2020

 
 
Updated 4/28/2020 12:45 PM

WASHINGTON -- Facing fierce blowback, House Democratic leadership announced Tuesday the House will not resume session next week as planned because of risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer declared the sudden about-face a day after a lawmakers revolted. He said after discussions with the Capitol physician, the risk was too great. The physician has privately warned senior lawmakers it will be at least a year before Congress can return to business as usual.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We will not come back next week," Hoyer told reporters on a conference call. "But we hope to come back very soon."

Hoyer, D-Md., said that because the Washington, D.C., area remains a "hot spot" under stay-home orders -- with the numbers of cases "going up and not down "-- the House's nearly 435 lawmakers and staff will not be asked to return.

Leaders of both parties had announced the House and Senate would return May 4. But the congressional physician's view was there is a "risk" to members, Hoyer said.

Uncertainty in the congressional schedule, along with deepening partisan divide, could stall work on a new the coronavirus relief bill. Hoyer said lawmakers will be asked to return when the legislation is complete.

He noted that negotiations are set to resume Tuesday with Republicans on proxy voting proposals in the House.

The Senate, meanwhile, remains on track to return Monday.

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In announcing the Senate's return, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that if it is essential for doctors, nurses and grocery workers "to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then it is essential for Senators to carefully man ours."

Later Monday, Hoyer announced on a caucus call with Democrats that the House also would be in session next week -- but pushback was swift.

Questions quickly broke out from lawmakers on the private call about the safety of returning to the crowded Capitol complex and reconvening staff amid the pandemic.

While lawmakers say they want to work, many are older and in high-risk categories for contracting the virus. Others care for children and families. Most have to commute from their home states.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., warned Democratic colleagues it would be dangerous to return, according to a person who wasn't authorized to discuss the private call Monday and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Another lawmaker asked if they or their staffs would be tested for the virus, the person said. Answers were uncertain.

Capitol officials have announced few new protocols for social distancing and other public health precautions as Washington remains under stay-at-home orders until mid-May.

Senior lawmakers were told in a briefing by the Capitol physician Monday that they may not be able to convene full House sessions, with staffing, for at least a year amid the ongoing crisis.

The House is weighing options for remote legislating and proxy voting, so lawmakers can keep working while away. A bipartisan House task force is set to meet Tuesday to consider proposals.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled on Monday's private call that she is prepared to hold a vote to allow proxy voting whether or not the talks produce a bipartisan agreement with Republicans, according to an aide unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity. Timing of the vote is now uncertain.

While the coronavirus pandemic did the unthinkable in Washington, sparking a rare bipartisanship accord between Democrats and Republicans on the biggest rescue package in history -- a $2 trillion effort last month, followed by $500 billion last week -- it may not extend to the new effort.

Pelosi said Monday it might be time to consider a "guaranteed income" as 26 million Americans are suddenly jobless. She insists the next bill must provide "heroes" aid to state and local governments to pay police, fire and other front-line workers.

McConnell countered that his priority is to shield health providers and business owners during the pandemic from what could be "the biggest trial lawyer bonanza in history." He has suggested changing the laws to let states declare bankruptcy.

"The American people do not need tangential left-wing daydreams," McConnell said.

House lawmakers are particularly eager to hold hearings remotely so they can conduct oversight of coronavirus spending and start preparing the next legislative package.

In the Senate, McConnell has said his top priority remains confirming President Donald Trump's judicial nominees to the courts.

If the Senate resumes, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there must be public hearings to "immediately begin vigorous and desperately needed oversight of the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic."

When Trump signed the bill into law, he noted his objection to the oversight provisions.

Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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