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Both chambers of Congress to return May 4, despite pandemic recommendations

Expectations for staff muddled; D.C. stay-at-home order runs through May 15

Both chambers of Congress will return to the Capitol for regular legislative session on May 4, which is 11 days before the current stay-at-home order in Washington, D.C., expires.

“Senators will return to Washington D.C. one week from today. We will modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Monday.

A few hours later, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced on a Democratic Caucus conference call that the House will also be in session next week and said votes are possible, according to his press office.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week as the House came in for a brief session to pass a so-called interim coronavirus relief measure that she hoped a bipartisan task force examining rule changes to allow some remote operations would have a proposal ready to vote on when the House returned again.

Some Democrats also want their leadership to move quickly on another relief measure, with more aid targeted to individuals and families and states and localities.

McConnell said in his statement that the Senate will work on legislation to protect companies and health care workers from “opportunistic lawsuits” as the economy reopens. The Kentucky Republican said that liability provisions in the coronavirus response packages already signed into law were a start but that they need to be expanded and strengthened.

“Our nation is facing the worst pandemic in over a century and potentially the worst economic shock since the Great Depression. Our response must not be slowed, weakened, or exploited to set up the biggest trial lawyer bonanza in history,” McConnell said.

The Senate left Washington in late March, extending its Easter and Passover recess early over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. McConnell subsequently extended the break for another two weeks, saying earlier this month that the Senate would not return to Washington “sooner than Monday, May 4th.”

The House left Washington even earlier on March 13, but members have returned twice since — once on March 27 and again on April 23 to vote on coronavirus relief legislation.

With a return now set for next week, both chambers are expected to hold regular weekly legislative sessions through May 22 before leaving for a weeklong Memorial Day recess, according to the schedule. But many on Capitol Hill have acknowledged that the previously announced calendar for 2020 has been upended and more changes could be ahead.

If the House is able to vote on a rule change to allow remote committee hearings and markups and/or remote or proxy voting, members may be allowed to choose where they feel most comfortable working. But it’s unclear if there will be a plan that can garner bipartisan support, as Pelosi said she was seeking.

McConnell and others in Republican leadership oppose implementing remote voting during the pandemic. When Kentucky Republican Rand Paul tried to adopt a resolution last week to allow senators to vote remotely, McConnell blocked it on the floor.

As lawmakers make their way back to Washington, it is not yet clear what expectations will be for staffers. Each office is run independently, which gives lawmakers the freedom to tell staff to continue working from home or to come back to the office. During recent sessions in which the Senate passed coronavirus legislation, some staff for the chamber itself operated in staggered shifts.

Public transit modes in Washington, Virginia and Maryland are operating on extremely reduced schedules and schools remain closed, which may cause staff to remain working from home despite the Senate’s return to legislative activity.

“I look forward to seeing all my colleagues next Monday,” McConnell said in Monday’s statement.

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