House and Senate will return next week to backlog of oversight issues

As party leaders seek deal on another coronavirus relief package, lawmakers must address a raft of oversight issues related to previous legislation

Griffin Connolly
Washington
Monday 27 April 2020 22:34
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Nancy Pelosi suggests minimum guaranteed income now 'worthy of attention'

The House and Senate will both be in full session next week for the first time in nearly two months, as lawmakers seek to strike a deal on another sweeping coronavirus relief package and address a backlog of oversight issues stemming from roughly $2.7trn worth of previous legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced on a Democratic caucus call on Monday that the chamber will be called back for business, and that "votes are possible," according to his press account on Twitter.

Mr Hoyer told House Democrats on the call that he wants a Democratic version of the bill often referred to as "CARES 2" drafted by Tuesday of next week and ready to hit the House floor by Thursday or Friday at the latest.

The bill will follow a $2.2trn coronavirus relief package passed in March known as the CARES Act and a $484bn "interim" bill passed last week.

Meanwhile, the Senate Majority Leader confirmed earlier in the day that he will be calling his chamber back into session, too.

"We will modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person," Mr McConnell said in a statement.

"If it is essential for doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, truck drivers, grocery-store workers, and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then it is essential for Senators to carefully man ours and support them," Mr McConnell said.

Democrats and Republicans have a long way to go to bridge their visions for CARES 2.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted the $2.2trn package passed in March was a "down payment" to help Americans weather the immediate health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr McConnell has said he wants to "hit pause" on spending more federal dollars and sending the federal deficit skyward.

In negotiations on the bill from last week, Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for at least $150bn in additional funding for state and local governments on the frontlines of the health crisis.

That issue is shaping up to be a key sticking point once again in CARES 2 negotiations.

Mr McConnell suggested last week that some states with overleveraged budgets before the pandemic could file for bankruptcy instead of asking for more federal money. But he appeared to soften that stance slightly in an interview with conservative radio host Guy Benson on Monday.

"I wasn't necessarily recommending it," Mr McConnell said of states filing for bankruptcy, but rather offering it as an alternative option.

In a tweet on Monday, Donald Trump echoed Mr McConnell's hesitance to shovel billions of additional dollars to governors and mayors.

"Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?" the president wrote.

Mr McConnell signalled in his statement on Monday that many of the Democrats' stated priorities for the next bill — additional funding for expanded mail-in voting, recurring direct cash payments in the mould of the $1,200 checks Americans have begun receiving from the March CARES Act, and an expansion of food stamp benefits, to name a few — have no chance of receiving support from Republicans.

"We cannot get distracted by pre-existing partisan wish-lists or calls to paper over decades of reckless decisions that had nothing to do with COVID-19," Mr McConnell said, referring in the second part of that sentence to states with unbalanced budgets.

As party leaders negotiate the next legislative package, Democrats are eager to launch an expansive oversight regime into the government's response to the crisis and how some businesses have exploited unintended loopholes in the recent legislation.

Last week, House Democrats voted to establish a select committee on the coronavirus crisis to be chaired by Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a longtime Pelosi ally.

Among the issues lawmakers are keen to probe are racial and other demographic inequities in how the coronavirus response has been administered; supply chain issues that have hindered widespread testing and efficient procurement of hospital equipment; price gouging by people looking to profit off the shortage of medical supplies; and how some large companies gained access to government bailout programmes intended to help small businesses.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged McConnell to launch public oversight hearings in that chamber as well.

“There must be public Senate hearings, at a minimum, to examine why the United States still does not have adequate testing and why some lenders in the [Small Business Association's] Paycheck Protection Program have prioritized the applications of their larger and wealthier clients to the detriment of smaller businesses that have oftentimes suffered greater hardship," Mr Schumer said.

Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to aggressively cast blame on China for suppressing information about the outbreak of the coronavirus that subsequently spread beyond its borders and has caused a worldwide pandemic.

Scores of GOP lawmakers have vowed retribution against China for its actions — and that revenge tour could begin in the court of public opinion with Senate oversight hearings into the origins of the virus and how China failed to accurately report its on-the-ground information to the World Health Organisation.

Multiple Republican senators have proposed cancelling part of the US's roughly $1trn in debt owed to the Chinese, which experts say could have catastrophic negative consequences on the markets' confidence in US government bonds.

"China needs to pay," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview on Fox News last week.

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