As crisis continues, an anxious House returns to Washington

The emotional intensity of the Trump era — where seemingly any act is a referendum on Donald J. Trump — has soared to new levels during the outbreak, even when that didn’t seem possible.

Then there’s the personal toll of the coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed more than 86,000 American lives and sickened hundreds of thousands more. Lawmakers, too, have watched family and friends succumb to the disease, or seen their sons and daughters join the ranks of the jobless. They’re fielding calls from businesses back home that will never reopen, and like everyone else, wondering whether there will ever be a “normal” again.

“It’s totally surreal,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “There are signs of hope, but I really think for many, it really hasn’t sunk in yet the depths of this problem. As Americans, we’re pretty hopeful, we think we’ll bounce right out of this and be fine. But I’m not sure we will be right away, or maybe even years.”

Yet politics goes on. The House returned to vote for only the third time since the crisis began, though this was the first to fall almost entirely along party lines — offering no assurances to the American public about when more relief will arrive.

Members from both parties complained it was the wrong move. They didn’t like the fact that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders drafted the 1,900 page bill in private and then released it on Tuesday, calling for a House vote three days later. Others said Republicans should have come to the table.

“It’s very frustrating, and I’m not throwing stones at any individuals, but I think we need to really take a good look at our collective culture here,” vented freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), though he is voting for the Heroes Act. “Maybe today’s the starting point on that.”

“It’s not about the price tag. I’m not saying add another couple trillion [dollars],” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leading progressive who unsuccessfully attempted to add a “Paycheck Guarantee” program to the underlying bill, despite weeks of lobbying for its inclusion. “I have tremendous respect for the leadership, they have worked so hard, so I’m not trying to throw shade here.”

In the end, the vast majority of House Democrats eventually voted for the bill, standing behind Pelosi and her committee chairs who wrote the package. But Pelosi and other party leaders faced a tight margin, with more than a dozen of her own members defecting on the bill. If there hadn’t been an equal number of GOP absences, it would have been an even bigger problem, maybe even an embarrassing defeat.

Many Democrats said party leaders had little choice but to lay down a policy marker for any future negotiations with Republicans and the White House. With a government deficit that could reach as much as $4 trillion this year alone, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has continued to insist that Congress should restrain itself from spending more money, at least in the short term.

Democrats argue that their package — with nearly $1 trillion in state and local government aid — will eventually pressure Republicans in both chambers to sit down again with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for the first time in weeks. They say Congress must do something now and not wait weeks more for action. The Senate, which has been in session the last two weeks, is expected to spend next week on judicial nominations and then will return home for the Memorial Day recess.

“I hear members of the other side talk about how much they love their constituents. Now is the time to put up or shut up!” declared Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), becoming emotional on the floor. Waters’ sister died of coronavirus in a nursing home in St. Louis earlier this month.

Republicans, though, argued that the House should stay in session while real bipartisan negotiations take place, no matter how long it takes.

“You are wasting time. You’re wasting time,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “You brought a bill here that won’t pass the Senate and the president won’t sign.”

The most animated fight of the day, however, took place over a Democratic-authored change in House rules to allow proxy voting on the floor. Republicans portrayed the move as the end of democracy while Democrats countered that it was a needed change to help the chamber deal with the current crisis.

The rules change also permits remote committee hearings and markups for the first time, giving members the ability to conduct business without leaving their districts.

Republicans were especially furious over the proxy voting issue, which would allow one member to cast votes for up to 10 of their colleagues, as long as they received that permission in writing.

Some GOP lawmakers asserted the plan violated the Constitution’s requirement for a majority to present in order to vote. Others suggested it would allow just 20 members to control the entire 435-member body.

“If you think our Congress still matters, if you think the people’s voice [matters], I urge all my colleagues to vote no,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was unable to reach a deal with Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) over the issue of remote work, despite weeks of discussions.

“These are old school commies,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said in an interview on California radio station KMJ. “I mean, their communist origins are really starting to shine though. They’re not even worried about it anymore. I mean, this truly is straight from the Politburo handbook.”

But Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who drafted the proposal following consultations with fellow Democrats and some Republicans, noted that the rules change would only last for 45 days unless renewed. It would also only be in effect for the 116th Congress, which ends in January.

“I have lost count of how many Republicans have called me offline… People tell me they support it, but they can’t vote for it because of the pressure of leadership,” McGovern said, adding that he was “disturbed” by some Republicans’ attempts to downplay the crisis this week.

“For Christ’s sake, close to 90,000 people are dead already,” McGovern told reporters in the Capitol, tearing into GOP lawmakers who have forgone face masks around the chamber. “If that’s not a big deal, I don’t know what the hell is.”