Under Pressure, House Leaders Scrap Plans for Speedy Return to the Capitol

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders on Tuesday scrapped a plan to call the House of Representatives back into session in Washington next week, abruptly reversing themselves after some rank-and-file lawmakers complained that doing so constituted an unnecessary risk as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in the capital and throughout the country.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, told reporters Tuesday morning that after consulting with Congress’s attending physician and studying Covid-19 numbers in Washington and nearby suburban counties of Maryland and Virginia, the leaders no longer felt comfortable summoning lawmakers back to the Capitol. He said they hoped to return once they were ready to consider another pandemic relief package in the coming weeks.

“The House physician’s view was that there was a risk to members that is one he would not recommend taking,” Mr. Hoyer said of Dr. Brian P. Monahan, Congress’s attending physician. Mr. Hoyer noted that the District of Columbia and two nearby counties continued to see an increase in cases.

“We had no choice,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said a few hours later. “If the Capitol physician recommends that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance in the interest of the safety of the people who work here.”

But the decision — which comes as many Republicans have clamored to reopen Congress, taking up the refrain of some small-government conservatives around the nation — also reflected intense pressure from Democratic lawmakers who were opposed to returning. It came less than 24 hours after Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer informed members during a private conference call that they were expected back in Washington on Monday. Some Democrats vocally protested, arguing that they would be setting a bad example for the country and needlessly putting lawmakers at risk.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which counts nearly 100 House Democrats as members, had been preparing to send a letter on Tuesday opposing the decision and urging leaders not to reconvene until remote voting and hearing capabilities were in place.

“The temptation to return too quickly is a real one, but we have to remember job No. 1 is to beat the virus and to do so, we have to work from home,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a leader of the group.

The House’s turnabout in the face of health warnings raised fresh questions for Republican leaders about their decision to reconvene next week. Under pressure from his rank and file to bring the Senate back to debate the next round of coronavirus aid, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has announced his chamber will be back in session on Monday. He made no mention of having sought medical advice, and on Tuesday his aides would not say whether Mr. McConnell or his office had consulted with Dr. Monahan.

“We are going back to work,” he reiterated on Fox News on Tuesday afternoon.

Ms. Pelosi said the decision was the Senate’s to make, but took a veiled swipe at its leaders for taking a step that could put hundreds of other support staff at risk. “What we have to be bothered about is the health and safety of the workers of the Capitol,” she said.

Though House leaders had planned to restart stalled committee work, including oversight of the Trump administration’s relief efforts, it was unlikely that the next phase of coronavirus aid would have been ready in time for the House to vote next week. Democrats were still drawing up their proposals on Tuesday, and leaders have said it will most likely include a significant increase in funding for state, local and tribal governments, as well as additional resources for the Postal Service, food assistance programs and election funding.

Senate Republicans have resisted funding most of those items and have said any federal relief package must shield employers from liability for harm to employees and customers when they begin to reopen.

The delay will also give House leaders more time to try to reach a bipartisan agreement on rules changes that would allow remote voting and hearings for the first time in history. Democratic leaders were hoping to build Republican support for their plan to permit lawmakers who could not or did not want to travel to Washington during the pandemic to designate another member to vote by proxy in their stead, and a bipartisan task force working on the issue met again on Tuesday.

Mr. Hoyer indicated that Democrats would move ahead on their own and vote on the rules change when they did return to Washington if those talks did not yield an agreement. Republican leaders have questioned the idea of proxy voting, arguing that it flew in the face of representative government and could deprive rank-and-file lawmakers of input into legislation.

But at least one Republican lawmaker, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, said on Twitter that the abrupt reversal on the House’s schedule only underscored the “URGENT need to reimagine and modernize how Congress can safely continue to do our critical legislative, approps, & oversight work during this crisis.”

In the absence of consensus on how to do so, many Democrats said calling off the session was the right move.

“We should be ensuring proxy voting and remote hearings so that we can engage in that important aspect of business,” Ms. Jayapal said, “but returning without the appropriate safety, testing and distancing protocols and procedures in place is unsafe and counterproductive.”

Still, lawmakers in both parties are grappling with how Congress should function in a time of national crisis. Many are wary of continuing with the current, ad hoc arrangement, in which their leaders and White House officials have privately negotiated and written trillion-dollar relief bills with little consultation, and presented them for a vote as take-it-or-leave-it propositions. In an apparent acknowledgment of those concerns, Mr. McConnell has vowed not to allow any more major coronavirus response measures to pass without the full Senate present.

“It is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to do the consultation, debate and deliberation that is critical to good oversight and legislation if we are scattered throughout the country,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut.

He echoed Mr. McConnell, saying that if lawmakers expected other government employees working on the census, public health, intelligence and small-business loans to go to work, so should they.

“We should set the right example by safely doing the same,” Mr. Himes said.

Senate Democrats so far have not publicly questioned Mr. McConnell’s decision, which appears to have been made without their signoff. But on Tuesday, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, and top deputies wrote to Mr. McConnell arguing that it would be a waste to put 100 senators at risk if he did not plan to use the time in Washington to actually address the crisis.

As of now, Republican leaders and the committees have not scheduled any pandemic-related hearings or votes for next week, instead planning action on several of President Trump’s nominees, including a confirmation hearing for a federal judge who is a protégé of Mr. McConnell.

“Pursuant to your decision to convene the Senate during the week of May 4, despite the public health emergency in Washington, D.C., we respectfully urge you to have the Senate focus on Covid-19-related matters and oversight of all Covid-related legislation enacted by Congress,” Mr. Schumer and the Democrats wrote.

They called for public oversight hearings with key officials, including Jerome H. Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; the administrator of the Small Business Administration; and health and industry officials involved in increasing the nation’s testing capabilities.

In a private phone call with the Democratic caucus members, Mr. Schumer urged senators to personally encourage their Republican committee leaders to hold the hearings with little delay, according to a person familiar with the remarks but unauthorized to discuss them publicly.

During his call on Tuesday, Mr. McConnell told Republicans that he would like to resume holding regular party luncheons, according to two officials familiar with his remarks.

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