Senate Is Planning To Return To Session Despite Coronavirus Fears In Washington

May 1, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 8:51 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Senate is scheduled to return to Washington on Monday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says senators need to get back to work. He says if frontline workers can keep showing up to their jobs, Congress should too. But not everyone agrees that is the safe thing to do. House leaders canceled their plans to return after the doctor who oversees congressional care said that it is not safe for them to come back to the Capitol. For more on all of this, we're joined now by NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how is McConnell proposing this will all work for senators to come back?

SNELL: Well, senators just received some pretty complex guidance just a little bit ago. And they're being asked to limit the number of staff they have in the office and keep people on telework. They're asking the people who do come into work in person to check their temperature every day before they go to work. They're saying that it's strongly suggested that they wear masks, but it cannot be mandated. They will provide masks for people who don't have them. And there's a part of this that I think is really interesting. They want to create one-way flows in offices and staggered visits to the cafeteria.

CHANG: Wow.

SNELL: So this is going to be a pretty complex process.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean...

SNELL: And when it comes to voting, they'll have more time - will be spread out. And so there will be efforts to maintain social distancing.

CHANG: OK. That makes sense. But, I mean, there have been reports that the attending physician for Congress told Republicans that they don't have enough tests for all 100 senators. Isn't that going to be a problem?

SNELL: Well, we have asked McConnell's office about this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We've asked them several times, and they have not answered whether or not there are 100 tests available. You know, they also have not answered a number of questions about what guidance they have received from the office of the attending physician before they announced that the Senate would be coming back. As we mentioned, they did raise concerns about the House, though there are smaller number of members in the Senate. We should point out that 49 out of the 100 senators are 65 or older. So they are in that higher risk group.

CHANG: Yeah. Right.

SNELL: And there are many members including, many members in leadership, who have past health concerns. There are members who are cancer survivors in the Senate. So this is not a low-risk group of people.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, I mean, like, some states are beginning to reopen what. Is the timeline for D.C. itself?

SNELL: Well, the head of D.C.'s Department of Public Health said earlier this week that under the best-case scenario, a phased reopening in the district wouldn't start for at least two months. You know, it's good to remember that this isn't just about 100 senators coming back to work, right? This is thousands of people who typically work in the Capitol complex when the Senate is in session.

CHANG: And what exactly are they planning to work on when these senators come back to Washington and fill up the Capitol once again?

SNELL: Right now, the schedule primarily includes confirming nominees. Now, that's the schedule that they're going to vote on. There are some controversial nominees up for judicial spots. There are - there's a plan to move forward on the new director of National Intelligence, potentially going through the FISA, which is the - basically spying legislation. There's also a hearing scheduled on testing coming up. But Democrats say that's not a good enough reason to bring back the Senate with all of these risks. They're saying that if they're going to be here in Washington that they have oversight hearings right away. They're saying that they're coming to Washington, they need to focus on the coronavirus Republicans have not responded directly, but we do expect that there will be coronavirus-related oversight hearings later on in the month.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.