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The Senate on Monday convened for the first time since March 25 as Democrats and Republicans clashed over the health of senators, as well as GOP efforts to confirm federal judges amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Calling his fellow lawmakers “essential workers” as he defended the decision to return to the Senate amid the outbreak, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., roundly criticized Democrats for obstructing the confirmation of judges and key government posts for months and forcing the Senate to hold roll calls and floor votes during the public health crisis.
“The deadly coronavirus does not take time off so neither does the U.S. Senate,” McConnell said. “Qualified nominees who have been held up for too long are already more essential at this time.”
The Senate is expected on Monday to vote on the confirmation of Robert Feitel to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Later in the week, it will hold hearings for director of National Intelligence nominee John Ratcliffe and on the coronavirus’s impact on the aviation industry.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., shot back by accusing McConnell of endangering the health of senators, their staff and other workers on Capitol Hill by calling the Senate back in session to vote on confirming “right-wing judges."
“The Republican leader has called the Senate back into session despite the District of Columbia appearing to be reaching a peak phase,” of the virus, Schumer said. “If we are going to make these fine people come into work on this conditions, the Senate should focus like a laser on COVID-19 … but the majority leader has scheduled no hearings on COVID-19.”
Schumer added that the Senate should be debating round of legislation to pump even more money into economic relief in response to the pandemic as well as how to expand testing for the contagion, instead of approving presidential nominations.
“With all due respect Mr. Republican leader, these are not the nation’s most urgent priorities right now,” Schumer said of the nominations.
One of the big issues Democrats want addressed is some sort of financial relief for states and municipalities hard hit by the pandemic.
The Democrats' stance puts them in direct conflict with McConnell, who has expressed opposition to providing more local help, at least for now.
McConnell has expressed strong opposition to providing more money for those governments. On Fox News last month, he cited concerns about the mushrooming national debt and opposition to helping states resolve pension and other problems.
"We’re not going to let them take advantage of this pandemic to let them solve problems they created for themselves,” McConnell said.
McConnell also suggested that states be allowed to declare bankruptcy, which is not currently permitted.
In his opening remarks on Monday, McConnell did not address another stimulus package but said that the nominations being considered were key to helping keep Americans safe and that Democrats are obstructing them.
“Those around the world who wish harm on Americans, you're not going to give us a free pass until the pandemic is over. So the Senate needs to overcome obstruction and continue to act,” he said. “Democratic leadership have used across the board obstruction to force floor time and even cloture votes for the kinds of sub-Cabinet level nominations that used to travel easily by voice vote.”
McConnell added: “So if any of my colleagues on the other side wish that we could recover the Senate tradition and spend less floor time on these sorts of nominations, I would invite them to share that view with a distinguished Democratic leadership and invite them to change their topics.”
Fox News’ Ronn Blitzer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.