Climbing death toll, job losses don't speed up Senate's pace

Climbing death toll, job losses don't speed up Senate's pace

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WASHINGTON — As Americans confront a crisis unlike any in modern times, the world's greatest deliberative body is doing almost anything but deliberate the coronavirus.

It's as though the challenge has split the U.S. Senate into two.

On one side is a Senate clamoring for a quick response to the virus outbreak at its door. On the other is the wait-and-see Senate hitting pause on swift action and carrying on with non-pandemic business.

"Every aspect of American society has been changed by this crisis — except, perhaps, the Republican Senate," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in the chamber Wednesday.

The split screen at the Capitol provides a study in contrasts and priorities, one that reflects the partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats, and is defining both ahead of the 2020 election.

As the House works remotely, the lights-on Senate has the legislative stage to itself. But despite a virus death toll nearing 100,000 and more than 30 million unemployed, the slow-moving Senate is proving even a pandemic won't quicken its pace. Senators are prepared to leave town for a weeklong Memorial Day break without having acted on any new relief.

At least one Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, vowed to try to prevent the Senate from recessing Thursday unless it votes on more aid to states and cities facing layoffs.

"Now is not the time for the Senate to go home," tweeted Gardner, who is among the most politically endangered GOP senators running for reelection in the fall. He told reporters at the Capitol that he had called President Donald Trump at the White House with his concerns.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defends the output, arguing that his side of the Capitol led passage of an earlier major aid package that cost $2 trillion.  McConnell portrayed the Capitol, where senators in masks are showing up most days while the House works from home, as its own "tale of two chambers."

"Over here in the United States Senate, the lights are on, the doors are open, and we are working for the American people," said McConnell, R-Ky. "And across the rotunda, in the House? Crickets."

Yet it's the split on display throughout the Senate's side of the Capitol complex — in the Senate chamber, its committee rooms, even its private caucus meetings.

The floor action this week revolved around votes on Trump's nominees for judicial and executive branch positions. Senators confirmed a new Federal Election Commission member and is on track to confirm four federal judges. Trump's nominee for director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, could be confirmed as soon as Thursday.

Across the street in the committee rooms, the split screen was coming into even sharper focus.

Two marquee hearings focused on investigations of the Obama administration stemming from the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday voted to issue a subpoena for its investigation into presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son Hunter, though there's no evidence of wrongdoing by either of the Bidens. On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee is set to consider issuing a subpoena in the investigation into Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

"This pandemic is the biggest crisis our country has faced since this committee was created," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a former presidential hopeful, addressing the panel's chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. "You made the decision to force a vote on a purely political matter that will do absolutely nothing for those at risk of contracting COVID-19."

Amanda St. Amand • 314-340-8201

@mandystlpd on Twitter

astamand@post-dispatch.com

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