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House returns, but business is far from normal

POLITICO logo POLITICO 5/26/2020 By Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and Melanie Zanona
a man wearing a suit and tie: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he couldn’t predict when or even if the chamber would resume its regular roster of legislative activities this summer. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he couldn’t predict when or even if the chamber would resume its regular roster of legislative activities this summer.

The House returns this week to vote on bills not related to the coronavirus pandemic for the first time since March. But signs of the chamber returning to normal are still weeks — if not months — away.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday he couldn’t predict when or even if the chamber would resume its regular roster of legislative activities this summer, saying that would be dictated by when committees finish drafting a slew of must-pass bills to fund the government and reauthorize highway, water and defense programs.

“As you know, Washington, D.C., continues to be a hot spot in the country, that’s a concern with Dr. Monahan, with whom I’ve been talking to on a regular basis,” Hoyer said, referencing the Capitol physician. “I’m very focused on committees getting work done. ... So that will dictate what we decide will be our general schedule going forward.”

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In the meantime, top Democrats, including Hoyer, have begun orchestrating how to allow proxy voting on the floor of the House for the first time in the chamber’s history — a change that has already been panned by Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The House starting Wednesday will allow lawmakers to cast their votes from outside of the U.S. Capitol, through a proxy, on a bill to reauthorize federal spy powers. The House will also vote Thursday on several noncontroversial bills, including legislation addressing human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group in China, and a proposal to give small businesses more time to spend coronavirus-related federal loans.

The Democrats’ whip team will hold a call Tuesday afternoon for lawmakers who are planning to vote remotely this week.

So far, more than three dozen Democrats have said they will use a proxy for this week’s votes, many from western states, like California, Washington and Oregon, with long travel times. Other lawmakers who have also chosen to vote via proxy live closer to Washington, D.C., but fall into high-risk categories for coronavirus.

House Republican leaders, however, are encouraging their lawmakers not to use the proxy voting system, according to GOP sources. Instead, members are advised to submit statements to the Congressional Record if they can’t be in the Capitol and want to record how they would have voted.

“If Members are able to do so safely, they are encouraged to be present in D.C. and voting on the House floor,” the GOP whip’s office told members in a notice last week.

Few, if any, Republicans are expected to opt into the proxy voting system. Only retiring Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida expressed support for the proxy voting plan after Democrats muscled it through the House on a party-line vote.

Top Republicans have crusaded against the rules change. McConnell questioned the constitutionality of the system, while House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) suggested Republicans will mount a legal challenge after the procedure is used.

Hoyer dismissed McConnell’s attacks as politically motivated, noting the Senate also utilizes proxy voting in its committees but not for floor votes.

“I think the political attacks are unjustified and will not have the effect that he wants,” Hoyer said.

“In fact, the polls show that the Republicans right now are vulnerable in the United States Senate, I think that’s what he’s worried about — that I think we stand a good chance of taking back the majority of the United States Senate,” he said.

The House is returning to the Capitol less than two weeks after passing a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill — its largest legislative package ever considered — without input from Republicans or the White House and just a single GOP vote.

Democrats have touted their sprawling legislation, known as the Heroes Act, as crucial support for cash-strapped state and local governments, as well as the millions of people who have lost jobs during the pandemic. But Senate GOP leaders have rejected the bill, insisting that Congress should focus, instead, on reopening the economy to stem the financial bleeding across the country. They’ve also maintained that lawmakers should wait and see how trillions of dollars in previously approved assistance plays out before voting for more.

McConnell and some senior Senate Republicans, however, have begun to shift their tone in recent days, as they’ve signaled that Congress might need to take up additional pandemic recovery packages.

“In the next month or so, we’ll be talking about possibly another bill,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday in Louisville, Ky., where he is spending the Senate’s weeklong recess.

But McConnell made clear the Senate wouldn’t simply take up the “$3 trillion left-wing wish list like the House cobbled together.”

The Kentucky Republican also reiterated that any additional assistance must have some strings attached, such as liability protections for businesses operating during the pandemic.

Hoyer on Tuesday did not rule out voting on individual parts of the House’s behemoth recovery bill. The Maryland Democrat said “it is possible” the House would vote solely on funding for billions of dollars for state and local governments — a provision that some Senate Republicans are already urging McConnell to take up.

While Hoyer has resisted holding House votes on piecemeal sections of Democrats’ coronavirus aid bill, lawmakers will consider one carve-out bill this week — a bipartisan proposal giving small businesses more time to spend federal coronavirus relief loans.

The legislation would give small businesses 24 weeks — compared with eight weeks under current law — to spend aid received through the popular Paycheck Protection Program. The Senate made a last-minute effort to pass its own version last week giving businesses 16 weeks to expend funds before decamping for the Memorial Day recess but couldn’t approve the measure.

It’s unclear how the two chambers plan to reconcile their competing proposals, although there is bipartisan support for the general idea.

Hoyer said he talked on Monday to Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee, with hopes that the upper chamber will just take up the House version next week.

“We’re going to move ahead,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “I would hope that the Senate would pass it. I talked to Sen. Cardin yesterday. He believes that would be an acceptable alternative.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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