Senate Democrats criticize McConnell's plan to bring lawmakers back to Washington

Senators, many of whom are in a vulnerable age range for the coronavirus, are criticizing the move especially as Washington grapples with the outbreak.

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are criticizing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to bring the chamber back to Washington on Monday, even as the Capitol attending physician recommends that House and Senate offices continue to work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"He would bring 100 senators and many more staff members and reporters into close proximity while Washington itself remains under a stay-at-home order,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who at 86 is the oldest member of the Senate, wrote in a letter urging McConnell to reconsider his decision to reconvene.

“There is no way to do this without increased risk. This is the wrong example for the country," she added.

After more than a month at home in their districts, senators, the majority of whom are in a vulnerable age range for the coronavirus, will be forced to travel back to Washington over the weekend. Many have raised concerns that bringing lawmakers together from all around the country not only puts members and their aides at risk, but also lower-paid Capitol employees and residents of the district.

“We are going to scrutinize Leader McConnell’s plan very carefully and see if it does provide the needed protection for the staff and the workers that are here,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a phone call with reporters Thursday to discuss the racial disparities of the coronavirus.

Washington reported 19 deaths on Thursday, a daily record, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has warned that the district has not yet reached its peak and could be shut down for three more months.

McConnell defended his decision to reconvene on Fox News on Thursday.

“We can modify our routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we can honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct our business in person,” the Kentucky lawmaker said.

In the interview, McConnell did not answer whether the Capitol physician’s office had advised him if it was safe to return. On Friday, McConnell said

The House called off its plans to come back to Washington on Tuesday after Dr. Brian Monahan, the physician who heads the Office of the Attending Physician, advised it not to.

“Yes, we had intended to come back next week as had been previously scheduled,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview with MSNBC.

“But once the Capitol physician told us it was not proper for us to do that, in the interests of not only members and staff, but the custodians, the people who maintain the Capitol, the press who cover us, the staff of the actual legislative chamber, there was no choice for us but to say we’ll put this off.”

A memo from the OAP was sent around to congressional offices ahead of the Senate’s plan to return next week for committee meetings, stating that “the OAP continues to recommend teleworking for all Congressional offices” but that “guidelines have been developed” in order to “accommodate this meeting of various Committees.”

McConnell said in a statement on Friday that the OAP guidelines covered “a wide variety of subjects, from staffing levels to physical workspaces to self-screening procedures to conduct at home every morning. Some practical questions will necessarily be addressed Senate-wide. Many others will be addressed office-by-office.”

“I look forward to seeing my colleagues on Monday,” McConnell said. “We will continue to stand together for the American people — even as we stand six feet apart.”

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee tweeted Friday that "if some of my colleagues in the Senate are really concerned that they won’t survive the process of doing what they were hired to do, then perhaps they should consider another line of work."

Some senators from both parties said they will continue to have their staff work from home.

“I will be coming in and asking my staff to abide by the dictates of the Washington, D.C., mayor and the governors of Virginia and Maryland, and so most of my staff, pretty much all of my staff, will be remaining working remotely,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in a call with reporters Thursday.

“I'm going to be keeping my offices closed,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said.

A spokesman for Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, who is a physician, said in an email “generally speaking D.C. and state staffers will continue to telework,” although some staffers might have to go into the office “from time to time.”

Multiple committees have hearings scheduled for next week, including the Intelligence Committee, Judiciary Committee, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Armed Services, Commerce, Science and Transportation, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Rules and Administration.

The OAP memo encouraged senators attending committee meetings next week to wear face masks, assuring them that a face covering “will produce minimal reduction in sound when using a microphone."

The memo also asked senators to “respect markings present on chairs to prevent the chair use, in accordance with social distancing guidelines," suggesting that special markings would be put in during the committee meetings.

While some of the scheduled hearings pertain to the coronavirus, such as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing to “examine new tests for COVID-19,” that is not the case for all hearings.

The Judiciary Committee, for example, is meeting to “examine certain nominations.” McConnell has made it a priority to focus on judicial nominations when the Senate returns.

Monahan has told lawmakers and aides that there are enough tests only for lawmakers and aides who present COVID-19 symptoms, according to two people familiar with a briefing he had with members of the House Administration Committee on Friday and Senate Republicans on Thursday.

A source familiar with the Friday briefing said “We were assured there was enough testing for anyone showing symptoms and feeling sick but the implication is we don’t have the resources to simply test the entire membership of the House or our staffs.

“In that sense we are in the exact same situation for the rest of America,” the source said. “The states and localities have sufficient tests for the symptoms of the disease.”

Julie Tsirkin, Haley Talbot and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.