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‘I hope hand lotion doesn’t cause cancer, because we’ve been using a lot’

To Republicans, the confirmation of a new director of national intelligence, several lifetime judicial appointments and a smattering of coronavirus hearings has been worthwhile. They did not approve new coronavirus-related legislation, though they say that day is coming. At a minimum, they expect to loosen restrictions on small business aid when they come back in June.

There’s also been something fulfilling for the GOP about resuming thrice-weekly party lunches, at a distance, in the Hart Building. McConnell governs his caucus by listening to his members, and the lunches have amounted to key strategy sessions. President Donald Trump has even visited for a pep rally.

“I hope hand lotion doesn’t cause cancer, because we’ve been using a lot of it,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) of the precautions his party is taking. Some in the Senate were particularly spooked when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tested positive for the virus in March, leading some senators to self-quarantine.

Democrats say meeting in person is not worth the risk and that Republicans are miscalculating about their health. Democrats hold party meetings by conference call or chat with each other over Zoom, declining to embrace Republicans’ attempts to resume their old habits. Not being able to see their colleagues in the normal settings makes their work less satisfying, they say.

“Given the risks they run, that someone could get sick from this? I think it’s not a smart move on the Republicans’ part,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Sen. Joe Manchin said a decision to resume caucus meetings in person remains “on ice” and that “Democrats will be very cautious” until there’s some form of treatment or mitigation for the deadly disease.

The West Virginia moderate does most of his work out of his office hideaway, calling upon his communications director and a tech staffer to help him navigate the complexities of being both a real and virtual senator. Manchin’s story is typical: most senators walk around without their usual retinue of aides, squirting hand sanitizer on their hands as they roam the Capitol. Warren’s taken to recording her own interviews and sending them to her spokeswoman.

“If we’re going to be careful and safe, we just can’t do the things we traditionally did,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “But for a couple votes on the floor, I could be sitting at home in Springfield or Chicago and do exactly the same thing I’m doing.”

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Trump withdraws ATF nominee amid Republican concerns

President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Tuesday afternoon, officially putting an end to the troubled nomination of Chuck Canterbury.

The former president of the Fraternal Order of Police was nominated last year but the appointment has been stalled due to conservative concerns over his views on gun rights. The Senate Judiciary Committee put his nomination on ice last year after those complaints began to emerge. Trump renominated Canterbury in February.

An administration official said Canterbury would have been unable to get out of the Judiciary Committee, leading to the withdrawal.

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Mitch McConnell’s coronavirus gamble – POLITICO

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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Capitol physician says Senate lacks capacity to test all senators

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has repeatedly vowed that the Senate can operate safely amid the pandemic with proper social distancing and masks. Though House Democrats originally planned to come back next week, they decided against returning after consulting with Monahan. On Thursday, he did not address whether he thought it was safe for the Senate to return, one of the people familiar with the call said.

The Office of Attending Physician also sent out guidance late Thursday afternoon for committee meetings. The guidance recommends that senators and other attendees use a face covering and avoid getting out of their seats for the duration of the meeting. In addition, senators are advised to either attend meetings on their own or with at most one staffer per lawmaker.

Democrats have repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of Capitol employees next week and several have pressed McConnell for a plan.

“I have not yet seen, personally … a safety plan to protect those people who have to come back to the Capitol in order for us to do anything. Nor a plan to make sure that we are not spreading the virus ourselves or to the employees,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, on Wednesday.

Some Democrats also have indicated they might not return next week if the Senate is not taking up coronavirus relief legislation or doing oversight on the aid effort. McConnell is focused on confirming judicial and executive nominees in the coming days.

“I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean that the entire Senate ceases to function,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Thursday. “We’re going to try really very hard to make sure everybody is safe. And not exposed.”

Top Senate officials are already sketching out how the Senate will operate next week. Monahan, McConnell chief of staff Sharon Soderstrom and Rules Committee staff director Fitzhugh Elder briefed Republican chiefs of staff about the Senate’s return on Thursday.

The officials encouraged staff to telework as much as possible, and told Senate offices to screen staffers who have to come to the Hill. Senators and aides are being asked to wear masks at all times, unless a senator is giving a speech.

Staffers were also informed that office buildings have been disinfected and sanitizer and masks will be distributed. The number of senators on the floor during votes will be limited. Hearings will take place only in large committee rooms where senators and staff can be appropriately spaced out.

Republicans will hold their party lunches in a cavernous room in the Hart Office Building, allowing three senators per table to promote social distance. Democrats say they will conduct all their party business by conference call.

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‘We’re all anxious’: The Senate returns amid the pandemic

The Senate is a social institution by nature, a group of 100 who spend hours each month milling around on the Senate floor during votes. Monday evenings are known as a “bed check” vote when leaders in both parties can take the temperature of their members on the pressing issues of the day during a non-controversial roll call.

But the coronavirus changed all that. Sure, the vote to confirm a new inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was 87-0. But most senators voted with speed on Monday evening, casting their vote and then quickly walking off the floor without the usual back-patting and breeze-shooting.

A handful of senators stopped to chat. Durbin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) talked about books and Washington D.C.’s fiscal plight from about 10 feet apart. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) briefly gathered to make small talk.

“How ‘bout these Zooms?” Manchin said, referring to how politicians meet their constituents these days. “Isn’t that something?”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pulled down her mask briefly to identify herself to Senate staff tallying the vote; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) pointed at her purple hair.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) walked onto the floor maskless (Paul tested positive for coronavirus in March).

“I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing. I think around here we probably won’t have to,” Johnson said. “They’re not pleasant to wear, are they?”

But most senators, from McConnell on down, were wearing them anyway. Nearly every reporter and staffer did too. Their muffled words ping-ponged around the empty Capitol eerily every few minutes. Mostly, the building was silent.

There were new plexiglass shields installed around the building, too, to try and prevent the spread of the virus and accommodate some business as usual. Boxes of masks were readily available as was hand sanitizer. And just like a Target or grocery store, there were visual cues reminding people where to stand to practice social distancing.

“It’s a different experience, for sure. But hopefully we’ll get used to it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

And even in this new, strange world on Capitol Hill there were some echoes of the past. As soon as the Senate came in after its six-week hiatus, McConnell came to the floor to castigate Democratic “obstruction” of Trump’s nominees; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hit back that if the Senate is going to be in it should be to focus on fighting the coronavirus.

It was a partisan exchange that would have felt normal before anyone knew about the coronavirus. But after it ended, Schumer put on his mask and spoke to a handful of reporters who kept their distance as photographers loudly clicked their cameras at the chatty minority leader.

Asked how he was feeling, Schumer paused for a moment: “I’m doing my best. I’ve got to go about my job.”

“It’s important for the Senate to demonstrate that we can function. And we’re going to be guided by good advice,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said he’d been tested for the virus twice when visiting the White House. “I’ve been under house arrest in my own home for six weeks, I was glad to get out.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) retorted: “I don’t think it’s safe for anybody right now, and I think that we’re not setting a very good example.”

Hundreds of House members streamed into the Capitol last month to pass the latest coronavirus aid bill but they left town immediately after and dropped plans to return this week. The Senate forged ahead, even as the number of coronavirus cases rise in the region

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell are refusing President Donald Trump’s offer for rapid coronavirus testing, a move seemingly intended to thwart criticism that the elite institution is receiving special treatment while much of the public lacks access to tests.

Schumer said he agreed with the decision. But not all of his members did.

“It’d be nice to have a test to find out if I’m going to infect my asthmatic son,” Tester said. “That means we don’t have enough tests — regardless of what the president says.”

But there will be no rapid tests for now, so senators did their best to cope with the new conditions. Many rely on staffers to drive them to and from votes and other political events, though on Monday some drove themselves.

As they exited the building, they stopped for reporters while a balmy breeze drifted through the nation’s capital. They were back at work voting on nominees just like usual — except everything felt different.

“I think we’re all anxious,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala), who wore a University of Alabama-themed mask. “Just about everybody in the world has the same feeling we do. We want to survive.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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