Senate to focus primarily on nominations in first week back

The Senate returned to Washington Monday as the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic climbed northward of 60,000, and tens of millions of Americans filed unemployment claims. However, the agenda for the Senate this week is focused primarily on confirmation hearings for key administration and judicial nominees, and not directly on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation.

The House is not returning this week, upon the recommendation of the Capitol attending physician. Washington, D.C. has yet to reopen its economy, and thousands have people have died in the region. However, Senate Republicans argue that members of Congress should be considered essential workers and return to conducting business.

“This deadly coronavirus does not take days off, and so the U.S. Senate does not either,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday.  “The Senate is going to be as smart and safe as we possibly can, and we’re going to show up for work like the essential workers that we are.”

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are hearing from President Trump’s nominee to serve as director of national intelligence (DNI), Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas. Ratcliffe previously withdrew his nomination after being selected for the role by Mr. Trump for the first time last August, in part due to concerns about his qualifications.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will also hold a confirmation hearing for Justin Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is considered one of the most powerful federal courts in the nation and has served as a launching pad for several current Supreme Court justices. The 37-year-old Walker, an ally of McConnell, was rated as “not qualified” for the position by the American Bar Association due to his lack of trial experience.

“We’re surrounded by stay at home orders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. You tell people don’t come unless you’re needed. Why are we here? A hearing on Justin Walker on Wednesday,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin fumed to reporters on Monday. “Does this sound like a compelling national emergency that draws us in at risk? I don’t think it does.”

In a speech on the Senate floor Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer questioned why the Senate was reconvening “despite the risks we face by gathering here in Capitol, despite the risks faced by security guards, cafeteria workers, janitors, and the staff who operate the floor of the Senate.”

“If we are going to be here, if we are going to make these fine people come in to work in these conditions, let the Senate at least conduct the nation’s business and focus like a laser on COVID-19,” Schumer continued.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will be considering three nominations Thursday, including that of Kenneth Braithwaite to be navy secretary.

The Senate Banking Committee will on Tuesday afternoon hold a confirmation hearing for Brian Miller to be the special inspector general for pandemic recovery, who is tasked with overseeing a $500 billion fund to help businesses and industries affected by the pandemic. However, Democrats are pushing for more work to be done to address the coronavirus crisis.

A spokesperson for McConnell also pointed out that there would be committee hearings on testing and the pandemic’s impact on the aviation industry, arguing that the Senate was addressing critical coronavirus-related topics while also focusing on nominations.

Politico reported on Tuesday morning that Schumer and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin would attempt to push through legislation mandating new disclosure requirements for the Paycheck Protection Program, which was created to assist small businesses during the crisis. This effort is likely to fail.

Democrats are also eager to work on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation, which they hope contains assistance for struggling state and local governments. Republicans, meanwhile, are insisting that the next package include liability protections for businesses and health care employers.

Many senators are over the age of 65 and have preexisting health conditions, placing them among the most vulnerable demographic for the virus. However, Republicans argue that it is important to conduct the business of the Senate nonetheless.

“I think we also need to demonstrate that we’re not afraid to come here,” Republican Senator John Cornyn told reporters Monday. “And I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean that entire Senate ceases to function.”

Alan He and John Nolen contributed to this report.

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