WASHINGTON – The Senate reopened Monday in a Capitol largely shuttered by the coronavirus, but prospects for quick action on a new aid package are uncertain with a deepening debate over how best to confront the deadly pandemic and its economic devastation.
The 100 senators are convening for the first time since March, while the House is staying away due to the health risks, as the conflicted Congress reflects an uneasy nation. The Washington area remains a virus hot spot under stay-home rules.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the session, defending his decision to focus the agenda on confirming President Donald Trump's nominees rather than the virus outbreak.
“We have important work to do for the nation,” McConnell said. He said the Senate would "show up for work like the essential workers that we are.”
Senate Republicans are trying to set the terms of debate, frustrated that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to fill up earlier aid bills with Democratic priorities. They’re reluctant to unleash federal funds beyond the nearly $3 trillion Congress already approved in virus relief and hope Trump's push to kick-start the economy will reduce the need for more aid. But Pelosi is marching ahead without them, assembling a new aid package that Democrats expect to unveil soon.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer decried bringing senators and staff back without confronting the crisis. He called it “one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history.”
For more than five weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has all but closed Congress, a longer absence than during the 1918 Spanish flu.
Senators returned to a changed place with new guidelines, including the recommendation that senators wear masks — blue face coverings were available for free, and being worn by staff. Senators were also told to keep their distance and leave most staff at home. Public access is limited, including at public hearings. The Capitol itself remains closed to visitors and tours.