Congress Races to Respond to Coronavirus Pandemic

WASHINGTON — When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin rushed to the Capitol on Tuesday to pitch Senate Republicans on a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package, the chamber had already moved into crisis mode as lawmakers confronted a growing sense of urgency to act before much of the nation shuts down.

Senate Democrats abandoned their weekly policy luncheon for a teleconference, while about four dozen Republicans, joined by Mr. Mnuchin, practiced social distancing by moving their lunch from their usual 80-seat room in the Capitol to one across the street that seats 200. Instead of 10 senators at each table, there were five. The buffet line was gone; gloved servers dished out tuna, egg salad and chicken.

Despite public health officials’ pleas to employers to keep their workers at home, the Senate — whose members include a high volume of septuagenarians and octogenarians considered particularly vulnerable to coronavirus — has continued to meet. One reason is that lawmakers are rushing to pass legislation to provide relief to workers and businesses. Another is that they are reluctant to shutter the Capitol, a potent symbol in the United States and around the world of a functioning government in trying times.

But on Wednesday, they received a sobering reminder of the risks. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, became the first member of Congress to discover he was infected with the coronavirus. The House is on recess, but the Senate soldiered on.

“The continuation of government is a critical aspect to the recovery,” Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, said. “Congress needs to either find new ways to meet or make a commitment to being here until the job is done.”

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and a medical doctor who is also a member of leadership, said lawmakers were impatient to act quickly and decisively: “Go big. Go fast. Get it right,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

The result is that hundreds of lawmakers, aides, police officers and other support staff (as well as journalists) are spending the week huddled under a cast-iron dome, fueling anxieties not only about the fate of the nation but about the health of those involved. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has made clear that he had no plans to allow his members to work from home until they confront the spiraling crisis.

“The Senate will not leave town,” he declared on Tuesday, “until we have passed another bill to address this emergency.”

But whether lawmakers themselves will be able to weather the growing storm is an entirely different question. With each passing day, more institutions — schools, businesses, even entire cities — are closing down, and lawmakers put themselves and their staff at greater risk. And once they leave Washington, it is not clear whether lawmakers will be able to easily return, with cities and states pondering travel restrictions and President Trump under pressure to institute a nationwide quarantine and curbs on domestic travel.

More than a dozen lawmakers have already elected to quarantine themselves, and even more have closed their offices and sent their staffs home, citing an abundance of caution. While Mr. Barrasso said there was no talk of leaving — “No one was saying, ‘Can I go?’ Not one” — some of his colleagues were sounding increasingly uneasy.

“We cannot operate here under the assumption that we can just keep coming back every week and passing bills,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said on Fox News. “We’re going to need to do as much as we can while we are here, because we really don’t know what happens seven, 10, 15 days from now. We don’t, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do, and we should operate under the assumption that we can’t just come quickly together and act.”

That may be easier said than done. Congress has already passed an $8.3 billion package of emergency funding to help treat and control the spread of coronavirus, and Mr. McConnell put the second relief measure, approved by the House last week before its members returned to their districts for a one-week recess, on the floor for debate Wednesday afternoon.

The House, Senate and White House are now negotiating a third, $1 trillion economic stabilization package of the sort that Mr. Mnuchin discussed at the Senate lunch.

“This is a herculean task,” Mr. McConnell said.

In the House, a growing number of Democrats and Republicans, wary about the implications of traveling to and from Washington as the crisis deepens, are pushing leaders to embrace remote voting on an emergency basis. The divide appears to be generational, with younger lawmakers and those with young children more enthusiastic about the idea.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 79, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, who is 80, have been extremely resistant to remote voting. Ms. Pelosi said last week that like captains of a ship, members of Congress would be the last to leave. Mr. Hoyer said last week that remote voting would set a bad precedent.

But Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the 49-year-old chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview Tuesday that leadership would have to consider making some accommodations so that 435 House members are not milling about the chamber to vote at a time when public health officials are telling Americans to limit their gatherings to groups of 10.

“When there is legislation to be voted on then some decisions are going to have to be made in terms of how to do that in the most appropriate fashion,” Mr. Jeffries said.

Ms. Pelosi’s deputies are exploring ways to limit the number of lawmakers that can be on the chamber floor at a given time. But that would still require lawmakers like Representative Katie Porter, Democrat of California and a proponent of remote voting, to travel back from their districts.

Ms. Porter, a freshman and a single mother whose artful grilling last week of the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went viral on Twitter, said remote voting would set an example for Americans being urged not to gather in groups. And, she said, it could function as a continuity of business initiative that could help ensure the House is reflecting the views of the country even when lawmakers inevitably go into quarantine or are unable to travel to Washington.

“Congress is allowing itself to be an exception rather than being an example, which we should be,” Ms. Porter said in an interview.

In the Senate, Mr. McConnell flatly rejected the idea of remote voting, telling reporters: “We’ll not be doing that.”

But Mr. McConnell said the Senate could pursue other, unusual means to keep senators and their staff from clustering too closely together like extending any given roll call vote over the span of hours so senators could vote one by one.

“We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing the Senate rules,” he said.

But in an institution that ordinarily functions on face-to-face contact, especially on the Senate floor, the unwritten rules are already changing — and that is altering the way the Senate conducts business.

“We’re not really talking to each other as much,” Mr. Barrasso said. “You don’t have a group of six or seven standing around together in a huddle on the floor talking, because we’re social distancing.”

A clearly exasperated Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, took to the Senate floor Tuesday morning to point out that 18 people were present to open the chamber — nearly double the number of people health officials have said may gather at a time.

“What kind of example are we setting by coming back to this chamber, at risk to our staff and the people and ourselves and our families?” he asked the night before. “We have members of the Senate going in and out of quarantine, self-quarantining themselves, and we’re acting like it’s business as usual.”

Many of the lawmakers still coming to work are elderly, and thus are among the Americans most at risk. Nearly half of the senators are 65 or older, and five are 80 or older. The Senate opened on Tuesday with Senator Charles E. Grassley, the 86-year-old Republican of Iowa who is the longest-serving in his party, calling on people to “heed the advice of public health officials” — even as he encouraged reporters keeping their distance to inch closer.

“Come as close as you can,” Mr. Grassley said.

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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