Though the coronavirus pandemic dominates the headlines, the Senate is back to the nominations grindstone this week as the chamber considers a slew of people tapped to serve on federal courts and in the Trump administration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shows no indication of making further virus relief an immediate priority. The Kentucky Republican called last week’s House-passed $3 trillion coronavirus bill a “1,800-page doorstop,” and when the GOP-led chamber will respond is not clear, though some talks continue in the background.
In the meantime, as the country begins reopening, expect tough partisan talk during hearings conducted by members of both chambers and appearances of key figures overseeing the distribution of some of the already allocated coronavirus relief funds.
The House is expected to remain away from the Capitol until after Memorial Day, when it will return to vote on legislation to renew surveillance authorities that the Senate passed last week.
In the Senate on Monday, lawmakers voted to cut off debate on the nomination of Scott H. Rash to be U.S. district judge for the District of Arizona.
Up next: the confirmation of Texas lawyer James “Trey” Trainor III, who represented the Trump campaign in 2016, to the Federal Election Commission. Trainor would restore a quorum at the agency, allowing the FEC to hold meetings and conduct official business. Democrats oppose the nomination, as well as the process. With Trainor onboard, the commission would have two Democrats and two Republicans, but typically, FEC nominees have been advanced in bipartisan pairs.
The first monthly report authored by an oversight commission created in the roughly $2 trillion relief package enacted in March arrived Monday morning. It posed more than 50 questions on the impact, effectiveness and transparency of loans and loan guarantees backed by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.
The Congressional Oversight Commission sought extensive details about Treasury and the Fed’s management of coronavirus-related business loans. The questions posed by the panel could shine a light into the thinking of commission member Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who signed off on Monday’s report. Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Senate Banking member Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is also a member of the commission.
Some of the questions posed in the oversight panel’s report are expected to emerge at a Senate Banking hearing Tuesday that features testimony from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. They are scheduled to appear as part of quarterly appearances on the status of coronavirus aid.
Tuesday will also feature newly installed acting Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., presiding over the committee’s vote on the nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to be director of national intelligence.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham announced Monday that his panel would hold a hearing on authorizing subpoenas related to probes into the FBI’s handling of links between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Last week, the South Carolina Republican said his committee would be holding “multiple, in-depth congressional hearings” into the matter.
And it follows President Donald Trump’s coining of the term “Obamagate” as a catchall to suggest that the federal government conspired to undermine his presidency and election victory. Critics call it a diversion from his response to the coronavirus pandemic that has caused more than 90,000 deaths and cratered the economy.
It also comes as the Justice Department has lagged on acting on recommendations from its own inspector general into FBI actions ahead of the 2016 presidential election, which included the mishandling of a probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server and controversial text messages between top employees about Trump.
House back next week
The House is scheduled to be in session May 27 and 28 to consider the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act measure and possibly other coronavirus legislation.
The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to be on break from regular business for the entire Memorial Day week.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer considered bringing the chamber back this week to pass the FISA bill, but after consultation with the Office of the Attending Physician and other leaders, the Maryland Democrat opted to defer the session.
The FISA bill passed the Senate last week with alterations from the original House measure and requires sign-off from the chamber before it is cleared for the president’s consideration.
The question remains whether the House will clear that bill without further amendments. A coalition of outside groups released a letter Sunday night urging the House to add an amendment the Senate rejected last week, which would have prohibited law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing information or search history without a warrant. Fifty-nine votes were cast in favor, but 60 votes were needed.
“Though two more Democratic Senators supported the measure, one being a cosponsor, they were unable to be present for the vote,” read the letter, signed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and Demand Progress.
The House has only one in-person committee hearing scheduled this week: an Education and Labor Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing Wednesday to examine the government’s efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. Witnesses have yet to be announced.
In the wake of the House’s approval last week of new rules that allow committees to meet remotely during the pandemic, there’s not yet a flood of remote hearings or markups scheduled.
Hoyer and House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern have both said they want committees to practice holding virtual sessions before scheduling official remote proceedings.
“One of the reasons that we are not meeting next week, we’re going to give the staff, not only of the committees but of the House, the opportunity to determine exactly how the new rules can be carried out,” Hoyer said in floor remarks Friday.
In implementing the new rules, which also include a provision to allow absent members to use a proxy to vote on the House floor, Hoyer said the chamber wants to avoid any adverse effects on members of either party “and to reflect accurately the votes of members, whether they are able to get to Washington during this pandemic or not.”
McGovern said the Rules panel has suggested committees hold two remote hearings and a private practice session of a virtual markup before attempting to conduct an official markup remotely.
“We want to make sure people know what they’re doing and that this process goes forward in an orderly way,” the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters Friday.
Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski, Todd Ruger and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.