Mitch McConnell’s public health gamble

As of late Wednesday, no guidance was distributed to senators on how to stay safe in the Capitol, according to lawmakers in both parties. Senators hope the Office of the Attending Physician delivers information by Friday, according to multiple sources. Amid that uncertainty, several Democrats are pressing McConnell on how to protect front-line Capitol workers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the oldest senator at 86, is even asking McConnell to reconsider.

Despite the anxiety, McConnell maintains that the Senate can still function safely.

“We can man the Senate in a way that’s consistent with good practices, proper spacing, masks where appropriate,” he said Wednesday on Fox News. “We believe we can conduct the people’s business, and we intend to.”

Republicans are planning to still have in-person party lunches next week. Democrats will do all of their caucus business by conference call for now, senators said, another sharp break between the two parties’ approach to the disease.

McConnell has repeatedly vowed the pandemic will not deter him from confirming more judges. The Senate Judiciary Committee is planning a confirmation hearing next week for Justin Walker, one of his protégés, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is also preparing a hearing on the nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be director of national intelligence, and several other committees are considering hearings. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is planning to limit hearing attendance to senators, witnesses and a small group of staffers.

Unlike the House, the Senate must consider nominations that take up valuable floor time. The GOP also risks losing control of the chamber this year, and with it the ability to confirm conservative judges.

Still, Republicans say there will be continuing discussions about the coronavirus response when back in D.C.

Some GOP senators have raised questions about returning to Washington, but more quietly than Democrats. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pressed McConnell for guidance in a GOP conference call on Tuesday.

Braun said he had hoped to implement remote voting temporarily and acknowledged “there’s a risk” in coming back. But he hopes everyone learned their lesson after Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) coronavirus diagnosis in March.

“We were in peril the way we were,” Braun said. “Now more than ever, we’re all aware of what could happen if you get a little bit careless.”

The absence of a coronavirus-specific agenda coupled with the considerable health risks dominated a Democratic Caucus call on Tuesday. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania have also privately expressed concerns about the matter, according to multiple sources.

The only floor vote scheduled is on Monday to confirm the inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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