Battle over Covid aid consumes Congress’ final sprint to recess

Leaders of the House GOP conference — whose members have been far more lax about wearing masks and social distancing — have signaled it will step up precautions. GOP leadership circulated a list of rules it plans to enforce at its private meetings, such as requiring masks and checking temperatures at the door, according to a notice obtained by POLITICO.

The GOP’s change in posture comes after Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) tested positive for coronavirus days after participating in a news conference with other members of the House Freedom Caucus.

“We have taken the precautions necessary,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Friday when asked whether the conference would step up its safety measures after last week’s positive case.

McCarthy also noted that leaders in both parties have tailored the floor schedule for the upcoming week to limit the number of total votes, pointing to a hefty lineup of spending bills, which typically have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments. This year, House leaders will hold amendment votes in large blocks to minimize the number of total votes, and therefore exposure on the House floor.

Congressional leaders also say they have improved testing capabilities in the Capitol, and members who need a coronavirus test are able to get one — although senior aides gave differing accounts about how long it takes lawmakers to learn of their results.

There are also growing concerns from lawmaker offices about when and how to bring back staff, particularly as the House takes up more amendment-heavy bills that some say are more difficult to manage remotely. For now, members have been advised to have no more than a handful of people in their personal offices.

It is the economic recovery package that will dominate the agenda of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the next few weeks. Both sides are expected to begin negotiations on a fifth tranche of emergency aid in the coming days, with a shared goal of signing something into law within three weeks.

The House is currently slated to depart for recess on July 31, with the Senate following the week after, though House members have been advised not to make plans the first week of August.

For now, both sides have been largely posturing with little to no attempts at negotiation.

Even before the start of formal talks, congressional leaders have drawn fierce battle lines about their own priorities for the package — an ominous sign for what’s expected to be the most difficult set of negotiations so far in Congress’ pandemic response.

With the economy sputtering and the fate of millions of schoolchildren uncertain this fall, GOP leaders say they plan to prioritize legal protections for businesses that reopen during the pandemic, as well as money to help schools that plan to welcome back students in person.

McConnell plans to introduce a GOP bill this week and discuss the proposal with his caucus. The Senate GOP also plans to push for hiring incentives for businesses, as well as additional money for health care providers, testing and vaccines, according to a GOP aide.

But Democrats have refused to consider legal protections for businesses without a ramp-up in worker protections — something the GOP has resisted —and have privately discussed blocking McConnell from advancing any coronavirus bill on the floor until he agrees to bipartisan negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday he had yet to hear from McConnell or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and urged for passage of the House’s $3 trillion Heroes Act, which the lower chamber approved in mid-May.

“Sen. McConnell is trying to draft a bill in his office,” Schumer said on a press call. “But he knows that a bill just drafted by Republicans won’t become law, he saw that in Covid 2, Covid 3, Covid 3.5. McConnell knows from the previous Covid bills that to pass a bill in the Senate he’s got to work across the aisle.”