Hoyer said he and Pelosi made the decision to halt plans to return after consulting Monday evening with the Capitol’s attending physician, who warned that lawmakers could be at risk given the still-rising number of coronavirus cases in the Washington, D.C. area. Nearly 4,000 people have tested positive in D.C., as of Monday, plus thousands more in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
“We had no choice. If the Capitol physician recommends that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance,” Pelosi told reporters on a separate call Tuesday afternoon.
The physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, had previously warned members of the House Appropriation Committee on Monday that they would need to make major operational changes to their regular process — including hearings and office work — to ensure everyone’s safety. Monahan said it could take “years” for Congress to return to normal with a full roster of staffers working together in an office at one time.
“The House physician’s view was that there was a risk to members that was one he would not recommend taking,” Hoyer added.
The Senate, meanwhile, is still coming back next week, McConnell’s office said on Tuesday. But his office declined to provide more information when asked if the Senate leader consulted with the Capitol physician.
On a private call with Senate Republicans Tuesday, McConnell told his conference that he even wanted to bring back the GOP’s weekly party lunches. But some senators were skeptical of what the Senate’s return would look like.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pressed McConnell on how committees would operate next week, according to a person briefed on the call. She also said that while judges are important to confirm, people also want the Senate focused on coronavirus. McConnell said more details about operations would come later this week.
However the vast majority of Republican senators on the call said they agreed with the decision to come back and there was little overall concern expressed by lawmakers, according to a person on the call.
“Whether the Senate is in or not is a matter of a health decision that their leadership has to make. But we could not take any chances,” Pelosi said. “We can’t be bothered about whether we’re disadvantaged to the Senate [returning]. What we have to be bothered about is the health and safety at the Capitol of the United States.”
The initial announcement that the House would return next Monday infuriated both Democrats and Republicans, who said they were blindsided by the decision because leadership didn’t consult them ahead of time and they were left with little to no guidance about how to protect themselves and their aides.
“We have a bipartisan committee of six meeting on it and they decided without talking to us,” said one senior Republican lawmaker.
Democrats also questioned why they were being summoned back to Washington for a single vote on Monday night and very limited committee work while the next major piece of legislation they would need to vote on — a coronavirus relief bill — remained unfinished.
Instead of bringing hundreds of lawmakers back to the Capitol next week, Hoyer said the House would not return until they are ready to take up the Democrats’ next major coronavirus relief package, CARES 2. Until then, top Democrats and Republicans would work to hold hearings, including oversight, remotely, though that issue has been a matter of contention between the two parties.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticized Democrats for not returning, saying they are “enjoying their vacation.”
The Senate, meanwhile, is still scheduled to return May 4. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to McConnell on Tuesday asking that the chamber focus on issues related to coronavirus and oversight of Congress’ rescue packages.
Hoyer said he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were slated to speak later Tuesday, along with members of the House Rules and Administration committees, to work toward a plan on remote hearings.
“At this point in time, we are going to be working in the interim on trying to facilitate committees meeting in a real way, but virtually,” Hoyer said. “I think committees could do the same thing.”
Senior Republicans said they hope to bring a few committees back to work first in the coming weeks and then have the full House return to vote once the annual defense authorization bill is finished.
Top Republicans have been hammering Democrats for debating ways to hold hearings remotely, instead of bringing Congress back into session during a time of historic national upheaval. And Republican leaders were quick to hit Democrats for the reverse-course on Tuesday, with one GOP leadership aide calling it a “complete embarrassment.”
But privately, many GOP members and top staffers have said they also don’t want to return to the Capitol, where a dozen police officers and nearly a dozen construction workers have tested positive in recent weeks in addition to a handful of members and some staffers.
The decision for the House to return had been instantly met with fierce backlash across the Democratic caucus. Several lawmakers said that returning to Washington would not only defy federal health recommendations — but it would violate D.C.’s own stay-at-home order, which goes until May 15.
Lawmakers and top staff in both parties were scrambling on Tuesday morning to figure out a strategy. The fury and frustrations were evident on one email chain, which included hundreds of Democratic and Republican chief of staffs, and quickly became a platform for ranting. One email from a top aide to the group read: “Are they out of their mind?” according to one GOP member who reviewed some of the responses.
Several argued that the House would not even be taking up substantial legislation next week, just voting on a series of suspension bills, and questioned whether it would be possible to hold hearings when the Trump administration made clear that it would not make its officials available for testimony during the public health crisis.
Many worried how they would be able to take care of their families if they needed to be in D.C. since schools and daycares across the country remain largely shuttered. Others worried about how to avoid exposure themselves, particularly for lawmakers who share apartments in Washington.
“Everything I would tell someone in good conscience not to do, I have to put aside to bring my boss here,” one senior Democratic aide said earlier Tuesday.
Burgess Everett, John Bresnahan and Marianne Levine contributed to this report.