Facing fierce blowback from its members, the Democratic leadership of the United States House of Representatives announced on Tuesday that the chamber will not resume session next week as planned because of risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer declared the sudden about-face a day after lawmakers revolted. He said after discussions with the Capitol physician, the risk was too great. The physician has privately warned senior lawmakers it will be at least a year before Congress can return to business as usual.
“We will not come back next week,” Hoyer told reporters on a conference call. “But we hope to come back very soon.”
Hoyer said that because the Washington, DC area remains a “hot spot” under stay-at-home orders – with the numbers of cases “going up and not down ” – the House’s nearly 435 lawmakers and staff will not be asked to return.
Leaders of both parties had announced the House and Senate would return on 4 May. But the congressional physician’s view was there is a “risk” to members, Hoyer said.
Uncertainty in the congressional schedule, along with deepening partisan divide, could stall work on a new coronavirus relief bill. Hoyer said lawmakers will be asked to return when the legislation is complete.
He noted that negotiations were set to resume on Tuesday with Republicans on proxy voting proposals in the House.
The Senate, meanwhile, remains on track to return on Monday.
In announcing the Senate’s return, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that if it is essential for doctors, nurses and grocery workers “to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then it is essential for Senators to carefully man ours.”
Later on Monday, Hoyer announced on a caucus call with Democrats that the House also would be in session next week – but pushback was swift.
Questions quickly broke out from lawmakers on the private call about the safety of returning to the crowded Capitol complex and reconvening staff amid the pandemic.
While lawmakers say they want to work, many are older and in high-risk categories for contracting the virus. Others care for children and families. Most have to commute from their home states.
Rep Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from the state of Florida, warned Democratic colleagues it would be dangerous to return, according to a person who was not authorised to discuss the private call on Monday and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another lawmaker asked if they or their staff members would be tested for the virus, the person said. Answers were uncertain.
Capitol officials have announced few new protocols for social distancing and other public health precautions as Washington remains under stay-at-home orders until mid-May.
Senior lawmakers were told in a briefing by the Capitol physician on Monday that they may not be able to convene full House sessions, with staffing, for at least a year amid the ongoing crisis.
The House is weighing options for remote legislating and proxy voting, so lawmakers can keep working while away. A bipartisan House task force was set to meet on Tuesday to consider proposals.