The coronavirus may still be raging throughout the U.S.—but that apparently won’t stop the nation’s most prominent group of high-risk Americans from gathering in person nonetheless. Though the U.S. House of Representatives decided Tuesday not to return to Capitol Hill for a few more weeks after consulting with Congress’ attending physician, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is insisting that the Senate will resume their in-person session Monday as planned. “I think we can conduct our business safely,” McConnell told Fox News Thursday. “We’ve got a whole lot of other people showing up for work during the pandemic. It’s time for the Senate to do that as well.”
Bringing senators back to Washington, of course, is a risky proposition, given the age of many of the nation’s top lawmakers. A full two-thirds of senators are over the age of 60—and 22 are over age 70—putting them at a higher risk of complications from the coronavirus. Many also suffer from pre-existing conditions that could exacerbate a case of COVID-19: McConnell himself, for instance, has had heart surgery, and Sens. Mazie Hirono and Michael Bennet are fighting cancer. Beyond the senators themselves, the U.S. Capitol also employs thousands of staffers and service workers that will likely be called back to work—many of whom are African-American, a demographic that’s been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Enhanced safety measures will be in place as the Capitol gets up and running again, with attending physician Dr. Brian Monahan reportedly advising in a private conference call Thursday that legislators should impose policies like include mandated masks, limiting the number of staff in the building, and a screening process for visitors to lawmakers’ offices. “We can modify our routines in ways that are smart and safe,” McConnell said on the call, per CNN. But there are limitations to the measures that the high-risk Senate can take: Monahan said that it would be impossible to test all senators for the coronavirus and only those who are symptomatic will be tested, even though asymptomatic carriers can easily spread the virus. Monahan was also not able to commit to regularly testing the older senators who face the biggest threat. “There is no way to do this without increased risk,” 86-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, said in a statement Wednesday about the Senate resuming. “This is the wrong example for the country.”
Congressional leadership is necessary amid the global pandemic, of course, which has had a devastating impact on the U.S. economy and left wide swaths of American individuals and businesses financially unstable. But as the ranking Democrats on Senate committees noted in a letter to McConnell this week, the Senate has “no scheduled legislative or committee business related to the COVID-19 public health and economic emergencies” currently slated for when the Senate resumes. Instead, McConnell’s focus in reconvening lawmakers seems to be on the Senate majority leader’s true priority: making sure the Senate confirms as many of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees as humanly possible. McConnell seemingly intends to use the Senate’s upcoming session to continue forcing judges through the confirmation process, as the looming threat of Democrats regaining control in November puts a time crunch on his dream to remake the U.S. court system in Trump’s image. “As soon as we get back in session, we’ll start confirming judges again,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week. “We need to have hearings, and we need to confirm judges.” Among those expected to be confirmed mid-pandemic is Justin Walker, a current U.S. District Judge in Kentucky who’s up for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—and just so happens to be a McConnell protégé who has known the Senate majority leader for years. Walker, whom the American Bar Association deemed “not qualified” for even his district court position due to inexperience, is currently expected to have his nomination considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.
Senate Democrats obviously aren’t thrilled with McConnell calling them back to Washington while Washington D.C. itself still remains under lockdown, let alone to enable the Kentucky senator’s pet project of reshaping the judiciary. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that McConnell did not consult him on the decision to call back the Senate and vowed to “make sure that the workers are protected in every way,” while the Ranking Members urged McConnell “to have the Senate focus on COVID-19 related matters and oversight” in their letter. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have also specifically called on Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham to cancel Walker’s confirmation hearing, given the importance of focusing on the pandemic. “There is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture,” Democrats wrote. “There is, however, considerable urgency—and growing public demand—for oversight of the federal government’s response to COVID-19.” And even some Republicans may be acknowledging that the Senate majority leader’s priorities aren’t quite in sync with what the American people actually want. “As much as judges are important, what people want us to be focused on is COVID,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said on a recent GOP conference all, per the New York Times.
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