Despite Coronavirus Risks, The U.S. Senate Returns For Normal Business
NOEL KING, HOST:
U.S. senators come back to Washington today after a long break because of COVID-19. They'll start work tonight. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is following this one. Good morning, Claudia.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been very eager to get the Senate back to work. Tell me some of what he's been saying.
GRISALES: He said it's time to get back to work for the American people. Here he is on Friday on WKYX radio in Kentucky.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: My view is this if doctors and nurses show up and people in the grocery stores manning the grocery stores show up so that we can keep the food supply going, the Senate can show up.
GRISALES: He shared new health guidelines on Friday from the attending physician to Congress. That includes avoid gatherings and wearing masks when possible, maintaining 6 feet of distance, limiting their staff and visitors in their offices and taking their temperatures before they come in. But we should note these are just suggestions. And there won't be widespread testing.
KING: Won't be widespread testing. So some of the measures that they're talking about - wearing masks, avoiding gatherings - is the things that all of us are doing. And yet, there are people who think the Senate coming back, in particular, is a really bad idea. What are they arguing?
GRISALES: Yes, they are worried about the repercussions. I spoke with Dr. David Relman. He's a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. And he said he thought the plan was, quote, "crazy" and the measures should be mandatory, not voluntary. Here's what he told me.
DAVID RELMAN: In this particular case, these essential workers are not embracing the known measures that will reduce risks down to some reasonable level for them. I think it's sort of capricious and dangerous.
GRISALES: Dr. Relman added that the average age of the Senate is over 60. And several senators are over 80. And we know risk increases with age. And then again, there's this lack of widespread testing to know who among the senators or their staff or even the Capitol workers might be infected in these close quarters. And this is part of a persistent problem nationally, of course. And with the incubation period of this illness, the Senate may not find out about a problem until it's too late. And over the weekend, the Trump administration offered for a thousand tests to go to Congress. But in a rare statement, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they declined the offer and these tests should go to front-line workers. So that means a Senate will be running quite a gamble when they convene this afternoon. And they may not find out how risky that gamble is until weeks from now.
KING: Oh, dear. Well, you know, the argument that Mitch McConnell is making is fundamentally not a medical argument. He's saying the Senate has work to do. What's the work that he's talking about?
GRISALES: So that's another point of contention. McConnell is focused on approving nominations from President Trump for various agency posts. Today, he has a vote scheduled on the inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also wants the Senate to take up other nominees for President Trump. Later this week, a Senate panel will take up the nomination of Texas Representative John Ratcliffe to become the next director of national intelligence. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, says the Senate should be focused on coronavirus aid and its oversight, not these nominations. But McConnell wants any new legislation to include new liability protections for businesses. This is something Democrats are opposed to. They want aid for state and local governments facing budget shortfalls. So this return to regular business highlights how these negotiations have stalled over a next package.
KING: And before I let you go, this, we should note, is just the Senate, right? The House has said we're not coming back.
GRISALES: Exactly. They reversed course. They were due to return, but they postponed plans. This was after hearing from the attending physician. And, of course, the House is much larger, so that would bring back hundreds more people to the Capitol, and it was a scenario they wanted to avoid for now.
KING: Fair enough, worse odds. NPR's Claudia Grisales. Claudia, thanks.
GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.