Reporter's Notebook: Congress torn over calls to return to Capitol Hill during coronavirus outbreak

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President Trump recently declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was on “vacation.” Some Republicans derided the speaker for “camping out” in San Francisco, with a well-stocked freezer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

“She should come back and get this (coronavirus bill) done,” the president declared. “I don’t know why she’s not coming back.”

Nary a member of Congress has escaped a troll on Twitter or other social media of late, demanding that lawmakers quit hiding in their districts or home states, hustle back to Capitol Hill and “get back to work.”

Work on what, isn’t quite clear. In fact, some of those who regularly have upbraided lawmakers for not being on Capitol Hill during the pandemic have objected to Congress spending over $2.5 trillion to respond to the coronavirus. And, pretty much the only thing on which Congress will continue to “work” for the next few months are bills worth hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars to tackle coronavirus.

Members of Congress are a jittery group. They don’t sit still. There’s a reason they “run” for office, not “walk.” “Shelter in place” and “social distancing” are anathema to the very marrow of what it means to be a member of the House or Senate.

This is why some lawmakers have been itching to return to Capitol Hill. They’re cooped up, tired of home, exhausted by Zoom meetings with their legislative directors, sick of conference calls with reporters. Lawmakers are just like everyone else. They’re burned out, walking the dog three times a day. They’re frustrated at helping their fourth-graders with mixed numbers and improper fractions. And then, a lawmaker may see someone lighting them up on Twitter about getting back to work – even though they’re working from their home districts. So, the pressure has intensified to race back to Washington.

To do... exactly what... is unclear. Yes, the next coronavirus bill swings in the balance, but after that, nobody seems to know for sure.

But, as they say, don’t just stand there, do something. Optics may fuel the desire by some lawmakers to return to Washington.

Many lawmakers have made a point of practically bounding down the House or Senate steps just seconds after the bells ring signaling the final vote of the week. They’d sprint to their cars and drive to Reagan National Airport. They couldn’t wait to get out of Washington. After all, who would want to spend time here?

Constituents regularly have excoriated lawmakers for “spending too much time in Washington.” That’s the mantra – until constituents start digitally browbeating lawmakers for not being in Washington to address coronavirus. It’s always a contradiction. Members either spend too much time in Washington and go “native,” or they’re burning valuable time amid coronavirus and they need to be back in Congress fixing things.

It’s a lose-lose situation.

But, in the age of social media, lawmakers can return to Capitol Hill and upload Instagram pictures and videos. They’re toiling at their desk in the Longworth House Office Building. They’re strolling across an abandoned Capitol plaza. Some may take swipes at the other side, asking why their colleagues aren’t in Washington, too.

That’s the optics part – even if most lawmakers may be ensconced in an abandoned Congressional office with most if not all aides still teleworking from home.

Pre-coronavirus, the cyber hecklers apparently thought it was bad for lawmakers to linger too long in Washington. Amid coronavirus, many have claimed it’s best for lawmakers to hang out in DC. So, lawmakers likely will respond to those pressures, regardless of the paradoxes.

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In addition, some lawmakers may interpret the opportunity for a captive audience on Capitol Hill. They’ve seen White House officials and President Trump on the air all day long. Why not come back to Washington and compete with the narrative? After all, it is an election year.

But to be clear, this is not all optics.

Lawmakers have observed who’s working back home: doctors and nurses, first responders, delivery drivers, truckers, letter carriers. So, it’s bad if Congress isn’t on the job, too.

Still, there’s worry about what “being on the job” has meant for the health of lawmakers. That’s to say nothing of those working at the Capitol and those with whom lawmakers may come in contact as they commute to Washington.

“If we all come back, (coronavirus) will burn through this place,” fretted one House Democrat who asked not to be identified. That member observed that lawmakers could learn their lesson the hard way if they rush back too soon. Such a scenario could spell trouble for efforts to quickly re-open various sections of the economy.

Talk about optics.

Another lawmaker noted that even though lawmakers weren’t on Capitol Hill, they were more engaged with their constituents and communities than ever. They weren’t dashing around the Capitol all day, galloping between hearings to the floor and then off-campus to a fundraiser or three.

Still, there have been stark divides between lawmakers who’ve wanted to return and those who haven’t. Some lawmakers have been willing to throw caution to the wind. Others have suffered from health maladies, worrying about their own safety. Others have been concerned about their families.

The schisms haven’t ben broken down by party, ideology, age, generation, geography, committee or congressional seniority.

Regardless, lawmakers who stick around after this week’s expected votes may find themselves on Capitol Hill by themselves. Few aides will be there. This will not be “Congress operating as normal” by any stretch.

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Over the coming weeks, Congress likely will convene only to vote – provided there are agreements on the next phases of the coronavirus response. Fox News was told that some Republicans were starting to argue against additional measures, considering the staggering cost and scope of previous coronavirus bills. That could change with the cratering of the oil market. But, Congress may not have much to “do” in Washington until the sides forge agreements offstage and summon members to vote. And, there may not be much Congress “can” do until it’s safe to bring everyone back to Capitol Hill, be it legislation or oversight.

This is why lawmakers have been torn. Congress is known for disagreements, and finding a solution to this disagreement may emerge as one of the most daunting challenges facing Congress in decades.