The Senate will reopen on Monday as the coronavirus crisis rages and the House of Representatives stays shut, an approach that leaves Congress as divided as the nation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to convene 100 senators at the Capitol during a pandemic gives his fellow Republican Donald Trump the imagery he wants of America getting back to work, despite health worries and a lack of testing.
Yet the Washington region remains under stay-at-home orders as a virus hot spot. Gathering senators for the first time since March puts at risk not only politicians but the cooks, cleaners, police officers and other workers who keep the lights on at the Capitol complex.
“We will continue to stand together for the American people — even as we stand six feet apart,” Mr McConnell said ahead of the opening.
President Trump himself offered Congress access to the instant virus test system used to screen visitors to the White House.
But in an extraordinary rebuff, Mr McConnell and Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Saturday they would “respectfully decline” the offer and instead direct resources to the front lines “where they can do the most good”.
No reason to turn it down, except politics. We have plenty of testing. Maybe you need a new Doctor over there. Crazy Nancy will use it as an excuse not to show up to work! https://t.co/NucH4dbKBL— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2020
For Senate Republicans, returning to session is an attempt to set the terms of debate as Democrats push for another costly coronavirus relief bill.
Frustrated after Ms Pelosi boosted Democratic priorities in earlier aid packages – an unprecedented $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) in emergency spending – they are resisting more. Republicans are counting on the country’s reopening and an economic rebound as their best hope to limit a new round of big spending on virus aid.
As the Senate gavels in and the 430-member House stays away on the Capitol physician’s advice, the Congress provides a snapshot of divided America struggling to confront the Covid-19 crisis. Some states are reopening, others are staying closed and questions abound.
Senators face few new rules for operating in the pandemic beyond the recommendations that they wear masks — blue face coverings will be available for free — keep their distance and leave most staff at home.
Hand sanitiser is back in stock but public access will be limited, including at public hearings. The Capitol itself remains closed to visitors and tours.
Democrats complain they are returning to a noticeably light agenda, packed with confirmation hearings for Mr Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominees, but with little emphasis on the pandemic and Great Depression-level economic collapse.
“Democrats are going to fight like hell,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on a conference call with Latino community leaders.
“We’re going to make sure people have enough money to live and get back on their feet.”
In making his snap decision to return, Mr McConnell said the Senate could not “sit on the sidelines”. He compared the senators to the essential work force of grocery clerks, truck drivers and others keeping Americans fed during the crisis.
But Capitol Hill erupted in the days after the attending physician, facing questions from top Republican officials, said the health office did not have the means to perform instant virus tests on returning lawmakers.
The Democrats are just, as always, looking for trouble. They do nothing constructive, even in times of crisis. They donât want to blame their cash cow, China, for the plague. China is blaming Europe. Dr. Fauci will be testifying before the Senate very soon! #DONOTHINGDEMOCRATS https://t.co/fgHuYeiOQY— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2020
On Saturday, Mr Trump stepped in, tweeting: “There is tremendous CoronaVirus testing capacity in Washington for the Senators returning to Capital Hill on Monday.”
Ninety minutes later, Health Secretary Alex Azar tweeted that the administration would be sending three machines and 1,000 virus tests to Capitol Hill.
In the rare joint statement, the congressional leaders said Congress would use the existing protocols from the Capitol physician “until these speedier technologies become more widely available”.
Hours later Mr Trump tweeted a response that insulted Ms Pelosi but did not mention Mr McConnell, saying: “No reason to turn it down, except politics. We have plenty of testing. Maybe you need a new Doctor over there. Crazy Nancy will use it as an excuse not to show up to work!”
The haphazard approach — to testing, health guidelines and the broader reopening — is what Democrats say is inadequate in the Republican response to the crisis.
With more than 65,000 US deaths due to the virus and 30 million Americans suddenly unemployed, Democratic senators say the focus needs to be singular — to ease this crisis and prevent a second wave of infections.
“If we’re going to go back, let’s do something about Covid,” Mr Schumer said.