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Uncertainty In Congress Over Next Moves To Address Coronavirus Crisis

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled this week's scheduled recess in order to take up the House bill on the coronavirus response.

Updated 8:20 p.m. ET

The Senate reconvened Monday afternoon with a growing sense of urgency to act on pending legislation, and a growing realization that Congress will have to take dramatic, ongoing action to blunt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic to the nation.

"The Senate is committed to meeting these uncertain times with bold and bipartisan solutions," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor Monday. "It's what we're going to keep doing in the days and weeks ahead."

The Senate is working to approve the bipartisan House-passed legislation that allows for expansive new, federally guaranteed benefits for American workers. Late Monday, the House approved technical fixes to its bill, and it's now up to the Senate to get a final bill to President Trump's desk.

A growing number of senators are clear-eyed that dramatic economic intervention will be required to head off a financial crisis: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling for a $750 billion economic stimulus package. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is calling for immediate $1,000 cash payments to every American so they can meet their short-term financial obligations.

McConnell said he is already in communication with the chairmen of eight committees about additional legislation that will be required. "It is clear that confronting this virus will take boldness, bipartisanship, and a comprehensive approach," McConnell said in a Sunday statement.

On the floor Monday, McConnell said senators were beginning to work on additional legislation on three fronts: to provide financial aid to individuals, shore up small businesses, and protect the health care system.

Congress is grappling not only with how to help the country but also with how to keep government operations running without unnecessary risks to workers on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., advised House lawmakers on Sunday to have their staffs work from home. The House is in recess this week.

House Democrats convened a conference call on Monday that lasted for more than two hours. Aides on the call said there are no firm decisions about next steps. It was an opportunity for lawmakers to air their concerns and ideas for what will be needed.

Pelosi has so far been insistent that the House stay in session and that lawmakers report to work for scheduled business, but that position was complicated late Sunday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new advice that all gatherings of 50 or more people be canceled or postpone for the next eight weeks in order to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Democrats have announced there will be no votes on Monday, March 23 as previously scheduled, but beyond that there is no clarity.

The U.S. Capitol complex is closed to the public. A chief of staff for a Democratic senator told NPR that each office is making up its own policies for how to protect staff. "There is not a lot of clear direction, and because we run like 100 small businesses, there are thousands of staff coming into the buildings; it's the worst combination of factors for exposure," the aide said.

Concerns about health risks grew over the weekend as at least four additional offices disclosed coronavirus exposure. So far, no elected member of Congress has disclosed testing positive for COVID-19. At least three senators — GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida — have self-quarantined after exposure to individuals who tested positive. Graham tweeted that his test had come back negative and an aide confirmed on Monday that he is out of quarantine.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced that a former staffer who left his employ 10 days ago tested positive. A Democratic aide confirmed to NPR that the former staffer was Daniel Goldman, who led the staff questioning during the impeachment inquiry. Goldman confirmed the diagnosis on Twitter. Schiff has postponed all of his events and meetings in his district and ordered his D.C. staff to work from home "for the foreseeable future."

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., announced that a member of his D.C. office tested positive for COVID-19 and that he was closing his office with staff working from home "until further notice." The congressman is now self-quarantining "until otherwise told by doctors."

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., said Sunday that his Capitol office would be closed "until further notice" and that all staff will telework after he received word of a confirmed case of coronavirus on the floor where his congressional office is located. His district offices in New Jersey are not accepting in-person meetings or walk-ins.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., disclosed Sunday that a member of his Delaware-based staff tested positive for COVID-19. The individual has had no recent contact with the senator or his D.C.-based staff, but the senator is closing all of his offices and his staff will be working remotely starting Monday.

Multiple GOP and Democratic aides who spoke to NPR on Sunday said there is rampant discussion among staff of Congress taking an extended recess. Both chambers are currently scheduled to return next week. Neither Pelosi or McConnell's office has indicated whether it will alter the congressional schedule. Senators are expected to meet Tuesday for their regular weekly lunch meeting to discuss the path forward.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.