CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Senate is slated to reconvene Monday for the first time in more than a month, but Democrats are concerned if being in Washington, D.C., at this point of the coronavirus pandemic is safe enough for legislative business.
Lawmakers in the minority party — including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — have criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for the call to return as the full Senate is only scheduled to take up nominations for federal offices at the start of the week.
“I can do more good here in West Virginia,” Manchin told reporters Thursday. “To have the Capitol secured for us to come in, that takes a lot, a lot of personal power there and a lot of men and women power to make that happen. He’s putting all of these people at risk for no reason whatsoever.”
House leaders announced Tuesday they are delaying legislators’ return until May 11 following consultation with Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress and the Supreme Court.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bower has extended the district’s state-of-emergency order through May 15, which includes a stay-at-home ordinance.
Manchin joined Senate Democratic leaders in sending a letter to McConnell on Tuesday requesting the Senate focus on the pandemic; legislators requested public hearings on testing capabilities and the implementation of the Paycheck Protection Program.
The Senate agenda for Monday includes no resolutions but multiple agency and judicial nominations.
“If we’re going to come back, these are the things we should be working on. These are the questions we are getting. These are the problems we have, and we can fix all this,” Manchin said Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he wants answers about the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
“If the Senate is to return next week, we Democrats demand there be tough oversight of the administration’s dreadful response to this public health crisis and their lackluster implementation of the COVID-related legislation passed by Congress,” he said.
“Key administration officials must be forced to answer tough questions in public hearings about why the United States still does not have adequate testing, what is being done to protect workers, and why larger and wealthier businesses are getting preferential treatment over smaller businesses that have oftentimes suffered greater hardship.”
Senators have received guidelines on the best practices inside the Capitol, including staggered voting and limited entrances. Public access to the Capitol is restricted through May 16.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she feels safe returning to the nation’s capital.
“I feel like I can practice social distancing, wear a mask, be very safe and begin to do some of the business of the U.S. Senate,” she told MetroNews Thursday afternoon.
“I just came from the grocery store where we have essential workers there and people who are practicing safe behaviors and conducting business. I think that’s what the United States Senate should do. I mean, half of the time people complain because we’re not there. And then when we go, now they’re complaining.”
Capito noted many coronavirus protocols were in effect when the full Senate last convened in late March. Lawmakers have since been conducting business and outreach through other means in their home states.
Manchin and Capito spoke to Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie on Thursday about classifying coronavirus testing as “emergency care” so veterans can undergo testing without approval from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
According to Capito, senators are likely to assess the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the $2 trillion stimulus package lawmakers approved before leaving the Capitol. President Donald Trump signed last week a $484 billion relief measure refilling the business loan program.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about what directions we might want to go in terms of what relief is left to be provided for, but also how we are going to get this economy jump-started,” she said. “I think the U.S. Senate can really be pivotal in getting us back to work.”
Manchin announced Wednesday a proposal for doubling the Paycheck Protection Program forgiveness requirement; Manchin’s plan would extend the time to use funding from eight weeks to 16 weeks.
“People who have had the loans for three or four weeks now aren’t going to have any time whatsoever to get their business coming back,” he said.
Yet Manchin continues to debate if going back to Washington, D.C., is worth the risk.
“If you all think I should go back, tell me,” Manchin said. “If the public thinks I should go back or I can work here in West Virginia and I think do a lot more … I don’t think there’s a senator who doesn’t want to do their duty, and we’re all fighting like the dickens to do everything we can.”