On Monday, the full US Senate will come back to the nation’s capital to resume its business.
“I think we can conduct our business safely,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on 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. We have many confirmations, for example. The Senate is in the personnel business. The House is not.”
Even as McConnell was asserting the need for the Senate to come back into session to confirm more federal judges, Dr. Brian Monahan, the Capitol’s attending physician, said on a private conference call Thursday that there are simply not enough tests available to regularly test all 100 senators, two sources familiar with the call told CNN’s Ted Barrett and Manu Raju. Only senators who are sick would be tested, Monahan said.
Which isn’t the only very concerning thing here. Consider these two facts:
1) The coronavirus curve has not flattened in Washington, DC. In fact, according to CNN’s Melissa Tapia, there were 335 new confirmed cases just on Friday, the largest rise in cases in a single day to date. The District has more than 4,000 total confirmed cases with more than 200 people dead as a result of Covid-19.
2) The Senate is a decidedly older institution, meaning that many of its members are at greater risk of suffering negative outcomes if they contract the virus. As CNN’s Kristin Wilson has noted: “86 senators are 50+ years old. 39 in their 60s, 22 in their 70s, 6 in their 80s. All flying in from all over the country.” (McConnnel is 78 years old – very much in the danger zone for the virus.)
Faced with a similar situation – although a slightly younger group of elected officials – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California announced earlier this week that she was scrapping her own plan to bring the House back into session on Monday. She cited guidance from Monahan as the reason she made the cancellation decision. Added House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland: “The House physician’s view was that there was a risk to members that was one he would not recommend taking.”
Several senators have spoken out in opposition to McConnell’s planned return.
“It is shameful that Mitch McConnell is calling the U.S. Senate back to DC to vote on confirmation of his unqualified judge and nominees unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D), no rank partisan, told Manu on Thursday. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), at 86 the oldest senator, asked McConnell to “reconsider his plans to reconvene the Senate, noting that: “He would bring 100 senators and many more staff members and reporters into close proximity while Washington itself remains under a stay-at-home order. There is no way to do this without increased risk.”
But, in spite of those criticisms, McConnell appears unswayed – dead set on continuing the reshaping of the federal court system by confirming President Donald Trump’s picks for lower court slots. Together, Trump and McConnell have nominated and confirmed nearly 200 federal judges in 3-plus years.
McConnell has gone so far as to encourage conservative judges and those appointed by a Republican president who might be nearing the end of their careers to consider retiring now so the spot can be filled by Trump before the 2020 election, according to The New York Times.
Given how much of a priority he has – and does – place on moving judicial nominations through the confirmation process and how little, generally speaking, he cares about public opinion outside of his home state of Kentucky, it’s very hard to see McConnell reversing course on bringing the Senate back on Monday.
But, in doing so, he is taking a very big chance that none of the 100 senators – or the staff that are required to keep their offices and the Capitol running, get infected with the coronavirus.