The Senate returns to work in full force on Monday for the first time since the end of March with two numbers in mind: 100.4 and six.
The first is how high in degrees Fahrenheit a temperature must be to be considered a fever symptomatic of COVID-19, requiring a worker to remain home. The other is the newly normal guidance on how far apart in feet staffers, senators and even the reporters who cover them are to keep for social distancing.
The attempt to get back to business for the Senate comes amid a larger debate at the state and national levels over whether and how best to try to reopen workplaces, even as the toll taken by the coronavirus continues to rise.
That exchange has been sharp in the lead-up to the Senate’s return.
“Everybody’s got to be responsible for themselves. And I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean that the entire Senate ceases to function. We simply can’t be seen doing our job if we’re going to be passing trillion-dollar bills without even being here and debating,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told reporters last week.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of the Senate Democrats, said he didn’t mind coming back but he wished it was to work on a follow-up coronavirus bill instead of nominations favored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. The week’s first vote, slated for late Monday, is on a nominee to be the inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“If we’re going to come back, we ought to be focusing on COVID and making things better,” Schumer told late night talk show host Stephen Colbert Wednesday.
McConnell in a radio interview last week said the Senate could be brought back in safely. “We’re all going to be here, and we believe we can man the Senate in a way that’s consistent with good practices, the proper spacing, masks where appropriate,” he said.
McConnell has touted a seven-page guidance document from the office of the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, as showing how the Senate can get back to work safely. The guidance urges offices on Capitol Hill to allow as many workers as possible to work from home and figure out the maximum number of workers who can be in an office safely while maintaining social distance.
Employees are asked to take their temperature each day at home and answer “yes” or “no” to whether they’re experiencing or have recently experienced any of a checklist of nine symptoms. A fever is defined as having a temperature at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Answering “yes” to any of the symptoms or other screening questions means the worker should stay home and consult a doctor.
The memo also suggests setting up offices so visitors have a six-foot standoff distance when they arrive. Similarly, reporters on Capitol Hill, used to gathering closely around senators in tightly knit crowds as the lawmakers head to votes, have been asked for weeks to keep six feet away from their interview subjects and will be asked again to observe distancing.
The House of Representatives, meanwhile, remains out. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said it may come back next week. In her weekly press conference Thursday, Pelosi, who had said House leaders had “no choice” but to delay their return after she talked to Monahan and he advised putting off returning, stopped short of criticizing McConnell for his decision.
“They are 100. We are four times that. They have some of their own members saying they should not come back, but I can’t speak for the Senate. I just know what our responsibility is in the House,” she said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, was less diplomatic. “The idea of bringing the Senate back in business to do some more right-wing court packing is outrageous in this environment,” he said after presiding over a brief House session Friday.
Pelosi and McConnell united over the weekend to decline an offer from the White House of coronavirus exposure quick-testing machines, saying the tests were more needed by frontline medical personnel. The offer was made after Politico reported Monahan’s office didn’t have enough tests on hand to be able to check all 100 senators for coronavirus.
President Donald Trump responded to the spurned offer by firing off an angry tweet, saying “No reason to turn it down, except politics. We have plenty of testing. Maybe you need a new Doctor over there.”