House leaders struggle to get back in business
Capitol officials, including the architect and physician’s office, are preparing guidance for when members do return, with advice about how many staffers can safely work in offices of varying size. And they’re conducting analyses of various spaces on Capitol Hill, noting which rooms would be safe to hold committee hearings or other meetings.
The bipartisan briefing, which attendees described as “very collegial,” had a multi-part mission. The meeting was purposefully conducted via a video conferencing application called Webex, a test-run of sorts to see how other committees could hold remote hearings in the future.
But the prospect of setting up a partially remote House has only intensified the partisan divide among party leaders — with both sides facing mounting frustration from members who are eager to take part in official business while they remain homebound.
Pelosi has vowed to plow ahead with a rules overhaul to temporarily allow proxy voting, with or without Republicans in the coming weeks. McCarthy, meanwhile, has rejected the idea, expressing concern that a single lawmaker could vote on behalf of 200 representatives.
Instead, McCarthy proposed bringing back a few committees first and allowing them to work in larger spaces like the House chamber, where they can practice safe social distancing. Then, after the committees have produced legislation, leaders can call back the rest of the House for a floor vote.
McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are leading a bipartisan task force on the subject. The two have exchanged papers, but people familiar with the discussions are skeptical they will reach an agreement on rules changes in the coming days.
Hoyer and other Democrats have argued that committees could securely hold hearings over video conferencing software, but many Republicans remain resistant to allowing panels to vote on legislation away from the Capitol.
“[Republicans] want hearings as much as Democrats do — this is their return to the national stage,” one senior Democratic aide said. “The idea that you can’t somehow have a public video conference that works after eight weeks of trying? No.”
At least one panel, a House Appropriations subcommittee, plans to hold an in-person hearing next Wednesday on the coronavirus response. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who leads the subcommittee, had sought to bring in one of the Trump administration’s top health officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, but the White House blocked the request, according to a committee spokesman. A former Obama administration health official, Dr Thomas Frieden, will testify instead, along with potentially other witnesses.
McCarthy has also pointed to a number of legislative items that need work, including spending measures, waterways legislation and the annual defense policy bill.
“You crawl before you walk, and you walk before you run,” McCarthy told reporters during a weekly press call Thursday.
McCarthy’s pitch to enable committee work comes as lawmakers in both parties have grown increasingly annoyed that they’ve been asked to vote on massive coronavirus bills that were hashed out by leadership in back-room deals. One GOP lawmaker told POLITICO that they expressed those frustrations directly to leadership, voicing concern that rank-and-file members are being cut out of the legislative process.
While party leaders scramble to figure out a plan, some lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands. The Congressional Progressive Caucus held a virtual roundtable earlier this week, which featured the testimony of several expert witnesses.
“We can clearly do this remotely, as we’re doing right now,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said as he closed the hour-long roundtable. “We wanted to show that this is possible. We can move forward and be safe and do it remotely.
And the Problem Solvers Caucus is also forging ahead with a solution of their own: starting next week, the bipartisan group is planning to hold virtual floor debates on a number of topics. But it is unlikely to silence the growing calls to get back to work.
“It staggers many of us, especially freshmen, that we are so ill-prepared as an institution to conduct our business,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in a recent interview.
“I don’t mind traveling to Washington. I don’t mind having to vote on the House floor if that’s what we need to do,” Phillips said. “But in the interest of time, we have to adapt.”