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The House’s legislative ambitions will have to wait

The House will not get back to any semblance of normalcy anytime soon

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., conduct a news conference in in April on COVID-19 relief funding.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., conduct a news conference in in April on COVID-19 relief funding. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — A day after Memorial Day, the House returned to Washington for a week dominated by another solemn remembrance, for the 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus.

That bleak milestone, anticipated with President Donald Trump’s order to fly flags at half staff over the long holiday weekend, came on May 27.

In another time, the magnitude of that loss would have brought Americans, and even their politicians, together. But solidarity was in little evidence, and Americans’ hopes that their legislators would lead the way to a cure and to a sense of normalcy were betrayed by what they saw on the House floor and in the press briefings of Democratic and GOP leaders.

[Updated House calendar has only one voting day in June, 12 in July]

Those demonstrated the House will not get back to any semblance of normalcy anytime soon and that the next virus relief bill will not come together without a protracted debate.

Democratic leaders said the pandemic once again revealed the deep inequalities in America, and presented an opportunity to fix them. “We ought to really take a look at this pandemic, look at everything happening around us, and let’s admit the fact that it’s time for us to restructure some things in our society,” said party whip James E. Clyburn, an African American pioneer in politics who represents South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, where the South’s secession from the United States was planned in 1860.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed Clyburn’s call for systemic change. But her Democrats did little in their first week back in session — following a nine-week hiatus in which they returned for votes on three occasions — that would suggest they believe they can begin that process now.

Democrats did lay out their ambition in a $3 trillion rescue bill they passed May 15. But Senate Republicans have called that a non-starter.

And that stalemate shows no signs of breaking.

Pelosi has called the May 15 bill an opening offer and she’s expressed a willingness to bargain, but when she was asked at her May 27 news conference if she’d consider peeling off a portion of that measure, a $75 billion infusion for testing, contact tracing and isolation of those with the virus, as a standalone bill, she declined. “Our bill has its oneness. It has its integrity,” she said.

The next steps are unclear. Even after implementing proxy voting, the chamber remains hamstrung by the virus. More than 70 Democrats asked colleagues to vote on their behalf on measures to investigate human rights abuses in China and to add new flexibilities for businesses, hurt by lockdowns, that have taken out loans through the Paycheck Protection Program that Congress created in March.

Democrats shelved another vote, on the reauthorization of anti-terrorism surveillance authorities, after Trump, angered by FBI surveillance of one of his 2016 campaign aides, said he would veto the bill and Republicans, many previously in favor of it, reversed course. Pelosi could not carry the measure with Democratic votes alone and the House voted instead to go to conference with the Senate, which passed the bill May 14.

No Republican requested a proxy ballot and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a group of 21 GOP representatives and four constituents in filing suit against Pelosi, House Clerk Cheryl Johnson and House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving in federal district court in Washington to block Democrats from voting in absentia.

The plaintiffs contend the system violates the Constitution’s instruction that Congress assemble a quorum to conduct business.

Republicans sought political gain, painting the Democrats as cowards unwilling to go back to their places of business alongside other essential workers. “Congress should be leading,” said Steve Scalise, the Louisianan and GOP whip. “We shouldn’t be the last to reopen and show up and do our job. We should be the first.”

The first proxy votes in congressional history took much longer than votes used to. The House spaced out representatives coming to the floor to promote social distancing, as it has in other recent votes, and those holding the proxies went through the motions of explaining to the chair for whom they were voting and how.

Pelosi has spoken of moving on soon to routine business, the defense authorization law Congress has passed every year since 1961, and the appropriations measures that will fund the government in fiscal 2021. Still, it will take a while for the House to resume its normal workload.

The work of the House’s committees, the markups of pending legislation, will not restart quickly. The proxy voting rules that passed May 15 also allow committees to conduct their work remotely, but they may only amend and vote on legislation after they’ve held two remote hearings and a practice markup.

[Hoyer: Appropriations markups to start in late June]

There was a glimmer of hope for bipartisanship in the near-unanimous passage of a bill that would make some adjustments to the Paycheck Protection Program of forgivable loans for small businesses, to make the loans more useful to restaurant owners and others whose rent expenses far exceed what they pay staff. The change will allow more of the funds to go to overhead and give companies longer to spend the money and still have the loans forgiven.

Back home in Kentucky during the Senate’s week-long recess, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that he would bow to Democratic demands — hammered home daily by his Democratic counterpart Charles E. Schumer — for another relief bill. Swayed, perhaps by the mounting job losses and polls indicating that Trump and the Republican majority in the Senate are in jeopardy, McConnell said he would not allow Americans who’ve lost their jobs to go without unemployment insurance and that the Senate would plan its next step in the coming weeks.

A deadline approaches. Congress’ Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program, which provides $600 a week to those out of work, expires at the end of July. Republicans say it was too generous — in some cases, workers are making more while unemployed than they did when they were working — and has hindered companies’ hiring.

To replace it, Congress could coalesce around Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s plan to offer those returning to work a government bonus of $450 a week. Or they might embrace bipartisan House legislation by Blue Dog Coalition Co-Chairwoman Stephanie Murphy of Florida to boost an existing tax credit for employers that maintain their workforces.

But if those hints of bipartisanship, alongside Clyburn’s and Pelosi’s call for ambition on a grand scale, suggested that anything more to help America weather the virus would happen soon, it was squelched by the announcement by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland that representatives would not hold any votes until June 30.

The Senate will return, but its focus will be on confirming judicial and executive branch nominations.

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