Was it essential for the Senate to return to Washington?

Behind the scenes: Some ask "Why are we here?" after the Senate accomplished little in its first week back as coronavirus cases continue to rise in DC.
Image: Senate Committee Holds Hearing On New Technologies To Help Create COVID-19 Tests
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, left, speaks with Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., prior to a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill on Thursday.Andrew Harnik / Pool via Getty Images

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By Julie Tsirkin, Haley Talbot and Garrett Haake

WASHINGTON — The Senate’s first week back in Washington, where the number of coronavirus cases is expected to peak later in the month, included confirming two nominees who had virtually no opposition, and a hearing on Justin Walker, President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Four different Senate committees held coronavirus-related hearings during the course of the week, focused on everything from testing to the airline industry, to vetting the nominee to oversee the Treasury department’s pandemic relief efforts. But the lack of floor votes on recovery measures, or even measurable negotiations on them, left some senators questioning why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called them back to Capitol Hill during such a risky time.

Asked if it was safe to be in the Capitol, Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, who rarely steps out of line, plainly told NBC News “No” — hanging the decision on leadership.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., had a little more to say.

“I just think it's absurd, and frankly deeply offensive to people all around this country in crisis that we're actually having a hearing on a judge that’s for a vacancy that is not even open until September,” Bookertold reporters after the hearing on Walker concluded.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., at 80 one of the oldest members of the Senate, missed both nominee votes and stayed home in D.C. with his wife, coming in only for the failed vote to override Trump’s veto on the War Powers Resolution.

“Just being careful, we’ve been doing a lot of work with appropriations online,” he said. “I didn’t want to endanger my staff or myself,” he said.

Senate Republicans, who still met in person for lunch every day, had a greater presence on Capitol Hill while Democrats kept a mostly virtual footprint, aside from votes.

Nearly all of the 100 senators hurried out of the Capitol on Thursday. Even those typically chatty brushed past reporters, with many rushing to catch flights home — which now take multiple connections through several airports due to flight cancellations across the country.

Others who live closer chose to drive back to their home states, benefiting from the lack of traffic on the roads due to quarantine orders still in place in many areas.

“I’m driving, back and forth to Jersey. At least I am now. [Interstate] 95, all the way up — it’s a lot less busy than I’ve seen it, ever. People doing the right thing,” Booker told reporters on his way out of the Capitol doors.

And before they rushed out, we had to ask Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., a crucial question: Why does he love Arby’s so much? Manchin forgot to mute his phone as he stopped at a fast-food restaurant during a caucus call with Senate Democrats in April, since unlike Republicans, their lunch meetings are held by teleconference.

“It’s the best one, it’s a Hawaiian king fish sandwich,” he told reporters. “That’s the one you want.” (It’s actually the King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe).

The Senate will hold more hearings next week, including one that is sure to gain attention. Dr. Fauci, a top member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, is set to testifying before the GOP-controlled Senate Health Committee on Tuesday, along with other top task force members. Fauci was prohibited by the White House from testifying before the Democratic-run House this past Wednesday.

Though they took the trip to D.C., senators are holding “hybrid hearings” — which sometimes resulted in a bipartisan Zoom party in the middle of crucial testimony, like during the Senate HELP Committee hearing on coronavirus testing on Thursday.

On Tuesday, during the hearing to confirm Trump lawyer Brian Miller as special inspector general for pandemic relief, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s dog could be heard in the background as Brown pressed the nominee.

On the other side of the Capitol, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held their weekly news conferences on Thursday, both testing out a new hybrid format, taking questions from reporters who joined remotely as well as the limited number in the room. McCarthy joked, “I wonder how many of the reporters cleaned their house before they went online. It looks very clean, very nice.”

Unfortunately technology did not always cooperate. Pelosi opened the question portion by attempting to take a question from a reporter via videoconference, but the audio failed. She joked about being able to read lips before ultimately turning to take questions from the room.

When exactly the House will return remains to be seen, but Pelosi said during her news conference she hopes the House will come back next week to vote on the CARES 2 package and on proxy voting, allowing members on the floor to vote on behalf of absent colleagues. On a caucus conference call on Thursday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told members they would receive a 72-hour notice before they needed to be back for a vote.

Even more Zoom calls could be on the way for the already technically challenged body. On remote House committee work, Hoyer said he is still discussing that with McCarthy but he intends to find a way “for the committees to be able to operate, call witnesses, have hearings, do markups, and report bills to the floor of the House of Representatives in a virtual way.”

In a bipartisan effort to model the possibilities of working from home like most Americans are, the Problem Solvers Caucus held a “virtual congress” in which the group of 24 lawmakers, half Democrat and half Republican, participated in a floor debate via video conference. The proceedings were streamed live on Facebook and even included a gavel and fake floor backdrops behind the members.

But in a moment of normalcy, the week ended the way every week did in the Senate before the pandemic struck: the Alaskan of the Week presented on the Senate floor by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.