The reopening debate is breaking along party lines.
Democrats envision a long path ahead, driven by public health experts and aimed at stamping out the virus’ spread. Their approach is sustainable only with unprecedented, open-ended government spending.
Republicans see a much quicker restoration of activity that will skirt the guidance of the health experts because GOP lawmakers see the economic catastrophe as too big for the government to reverse, or even hold in check. But their plan will only work if Americans are willing to get back to work, and if, in doing so, they don’t trigger intolerable numbers of deaths.
The debate played out on the Senate floor last week.
“For the first time, people who have always fed their families are trying to get food to feed their kids. For the first time, people who never worried about paying the mortgage or paying the rent are worried about being kicked out of their homes,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said on May 12.
Schumer added that the House’s latest rescue bill, released that day, was the “big, bold action” that would help those who can’t pay their bills. It would more than double the nearly $3 trillion the government has spent already in response to the virus, and include a vast array of relief, from direct payments to food, rental and mortgage assistance. Schumer said it would avert the mistake President Herbert Hoover made in responding to the stock market crash of 1929. In refusing to spend more to help suffering Americans, Hoover worsened the depression that followed.
Republicans declared the House’s bill, which passed Friday on a mostly party-line vote, as a nonstarter in the GOP-controlled Senate. There, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky mocked the grab bag of proposals — particularly a provision calling for study of diversity in the cannabis industry — and said more government relief was not the answer. “We can’t spend enough money to prop up this economy forever. People need to be able to begin to be productive again,” he said.
Each party’s position is undermined by some of the facts on the ground. For Democrats, it’s the reality that some of the party’s own governors, from Colorado's Jared Polis to Kansas' Laura Kelly, are reopening their states’ economies even though they have not met the criteria set out by the White House’s coronavirus task force, an indication of how intolerable the economic pain has become. Even the notion of ubiquitous testing as a middle ground sounded far-fetched when Schumer said businesses should be able to test every customer.
Republican lawmakers are in the awkward position of urging a path forward that defies the Trump administration’s own public health guidance, which calls for a two-week downward trajectory in new cases as a condition of beginning to reopen.
Democrats have the health experts on their side, as evidenced by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s warning to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on May 12 that reopening too quickly could lead to “suffering and death that could be avoided.”
But Republicans are not cowed by the health officials’ opposition. On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said politicians must control the government’s response, arguing that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reopening guidelines “risked further damaging the economy” because they were “overly prescriptive” and “infringed on religious rights.”
Congressional Republicans’ resistance to new virus relief legislation also contrasts with Trump’s position. Trump has recommended a payroll tax holiday, while Trump’s appointee at the helm of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, warned on May 13 that Congress will need to do more to avoid permanent damage to the economy.
The economic data could buttress either side. Democrats led by Schumer stressed the stratospheric unemployment rate, now approaching 15 percent, as well as the long lines at food banks, as cause for new government spending. Republicans noted it as well, as evidence that massive government relief only goes so far, and that only a private sector rebound will stave off further calamity.
The seeds of a deal emerged nonetheless. McConnell and Texas Republican John Cornyn are working on legislation to provide companies and organizations a shield from liability related to the virus’ spread, so long as they take precautions to protect workers and customers.
McConnell framed it as a way of protecting health care providers, reopening schools and other essential businesses. Democrats said it would be a license for big businesses to put employees and customers at risk. Still, it’s easy to envision Democrats giving some ground, allowing a liability shield on a temporary basis, provided Republicans give some too, in offering more aid to states and localities.
Meanwhile, in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed forward with a Friday vote on a massive relief bill despite some progressives’ misgivings that the bill was not generous enough and the concerns of many moderates in her caucus that it was too expansive. It passed 208-199, with 14 Democrats opposed.
Politics factored into Pelosi’s decision to ignore them. The House left Washington in March and has hardly been back, for fear of the virus’ spread in a crowded Capitol.
Republicans have pilloried Pelosi for it, noting that all manner of essential workers, from grocery clerks to Amazon delivery drivers, continue to go to their workplaces. The Democrats’ bill is symbolic and a messaging exercise. But with the November elections offering an imperative, Pelosi needed to respond to her GOP critics and show voters what they would get from Democrats if the party controlled the government.
The Democrats also pushed through a first-ever change in the House’s voting rules, permitting representatives to vote on behalf of absent colleagues. The rule change also opens the door to remote voting without the assistance of a proxy, if secure technology can be found, and permits virtual committee markups of pending legislation. It’s designed to get the chamber functioning again, but every Republican voted "no."
The changes “will fundamentally alter the nature of the institution and not for the better,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee. He argued that it would reduce the human interaction that spurs compromise and that it would allow the majority to limit the minority’s ability to speak in committee.
He questioned the constitutionality of the change, and said it would open up legislation passed under the new rules to court challenge.
Pelosi herself had resisted the rule change out of constitutional concerns and weeks ago assembled a bipartisan group of representatives to try to find a consensus solution. Republicans had suggested the adoption of new social distancing protocols within the Capitol as an alternative.
Even with the rule change, it’s not yet clear how quickly the House will return to any semblance of normalcy. Its schedule going forward remains sparse.
The Senate will come back on May 18 for a third week in session following a five-week hiatus. Even as new social distancing protocols are in place, it is holding hearings, marking up bills and confirming nominees.
This past week, it confirmed a new chief financial officer for the Homeland Security Department and a new deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It also passed an extension of anti-terrorism surveillance authorities.
None of that dealt with the virus outbreak that has turned America upside down, a point Democrats repeatedly made, but McConnell says that’s fine. The Senate must juggle the virus and other pressing business, he said: “Our adversaries would be tickled pink if the coronavirus causes the United States to lose our ability to multitask.” During the week ahead, he plans votes on more nominees.