USA: Long drives, no staff and facemasks: the Senate returns as most of D.C. remains in lockdown


11:25pm          May 4, 2020

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) drove down I-95 instead of taking Amtrak. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) planned to attend a hearing using web conferencing. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) wore a mask while traveling the halls (like many of his colleagues). And Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) came to work with no staff, instead of the more than 30 aides normally in his cramped office on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. Senate returned to Washington in full Monday for the first time in more than five weeks, as lawmakers, aides and Capitol personnel went back to work in a city that still faces a rising tide of coroanvirus cases and where non-essential workers remain under orders to stay home.

On the floor of tradition-bound Senate, parliamentary staffers and clerks wore light blue face masks along with their suits and dresses. So did some (but not all) of the senators who came to speak or sit in the Senate president’s chair, presiding over the mostly empty chamber.

The Senate Chaplain, Barry C. Black, gripped his opening prayer in black gloves. Senators were expected to wipe down their microphones and desks after delivering speeches. The Senate’s attending physician recommends masks, but it isn’t required.

New rules limited the Senate’s busy elevators to two people at a time — and only one if the rider was maskless. Some reporters still worked with press credentials that showed a March 31 expiration date, a small reminder of how much froze in place weeks ago as the country faced the monumental new challenge of slowing the virus.

“If it is essential that brave healthcare workers, grocery-store workers, truck drivers, and many other Americans continue to carefully show up for work, then it is essential that their U.S. Senators carefully show up ourselves and support them," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) as he reopened the chamber, his hair a little longer and wavier than usual.

McConnell called the Senate back to work Monday for the first formal votes since March 25. Lawmakers were voting early Monday evening on President Donald Trump’s nomination of Robert J. Feitel to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Across the street, the Supreme Court remained closed and justices heard arguments by telephone, a strange break for the normally technologically averse body. The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, delayed its return to Washington amid concerns over health and safety. (Only the Senate votes on presidential nominees).

Senate aides have spent recent days trying out virtual hearings on WebEX, a video conferencing service. (There are security concerns about Zoom). Casey expected to participate in a health committee hearing using the platform later this week and Toomey announced he would use it to chair a Senate roundtable Wednesday on restarting the economy.

Other hearings that require in-person attendance have left aides scrambling to book rooms large enough to accommodate social distancing, Senate aides said.

Voting, normally a time when all 100 senators gather, exchanging laughs and hugs and handshakes, had already changed when lawmakers passed the coronavirus rescue in their last major in-person action. They were told not to congregate.

As the vote unfolded Monday lawmakers trickled in wearing an array of masks or face coverings. Some wore gloves. Most signaled their votes from a distance, flashing a thumb up or down and quickly leaving.

“That’s a uniquely challenging thing for the Senate,” said one Senate aide who wasn’t authorized to discuss the changes. “Senators don’t see each other very much, so that time on the floor is a good time to approach a colleague or pitch a bill, or talk about some dispute that they’re having.”

Along with senators and aides came nonpartisan parliamentary staff, cafeteria workers at the few open Senate dining options, janitors and many others who make the Capitol work every day. It meant far more encounters for Capitol police who screen visitors.

Democrats argued that if all those people were going to be required to report to work, it should be for legislation that would address the coronavirus and its devastating economic effects, not Trump nominees.

“If the Senate is going to put congressional staff and support workers at heightened risk... we must ensure that we use this time wisely," Booker said in a statement.

Democrats had canceled their weekly policy lunches. Republicans planned to go ahead with theirs, but in a larger room.

“There can be no doubt that this will be one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).

Each senator applied his or her own staff guidelines.

Booker closed his two New Jersey offices and didn’t expect to have any with him in Washington.

Toomey had aides working in his Pennsylvania offices, and expected to have around 10 reporting to work in Washington over the course of the week, partly to help him as he sits on a committee overseeing the coronavirus rescue legislation.

-The Philadelphia Inquire

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