WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) drove down I-95 instead of taking Amtrak. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) planned to attend a hearing using web conferencing. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) wore a stars-and-stripes mask while traveling the halls, like many of his colleagues. And Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) came to work with no staff, instead of the more than 30 aides normally in his cramped office on Capitol Hill.
The Senate returned in full to Washington on Monday for the first time in more than five weeks, as lawmakers, aides, and Capitol personnel went back to work in a city that still faces a rising tide of coronavirus cases, and where nonessential workers remain under orders to stay home.
On the floor of the tradition-bound Senate, parliamentary staffers and clerks wore light blue face masks along with their suits and dresses. So did most (but not all) of the senators who came to vote, speak, or sit in the Senate president’s chair, presiding over the mostly empty chamber.
The Senate chaplain, Barry C. Black, gripped his opening prayer in black gloves. Senators were expected to wipe down their microphones and desks after delivering speeches. The Senate’s attending physician recommends masks, but they aren’t isn’t required.
New rules called for limiting the Senate’s busy elevators to two people at a time — and only one if the rider was not wearing a mask. Some reporters still worked with press credentials that showed a March 31 expiration date, a small reminder of how much froze in place weeks ago as the country faced the monumental new challenge of slowing the virus.
“If it is essential that brave health-care workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, and many other Americans continue to carefully show up for work, then it is essential that their U.S. senators carefully show up ourselves and support them,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) as he reopened the chamber, his hair a little longer and wavier than usual.
McConnell called the Senate back to work Monday for the first formal votes since March 25. Lawmakers voted early Monday evening to confirm President Donald Trump’s nomination of Robert J. Feitel to be inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Votes on additional Trump nominees are expected later in the week.
Across the street, the Supreme Court remained closed and justices heard arguments by telephone, a strange break for the normally technology-averse body. The House, controlled by Democrats, delayed its return to Washington amid concerns over health and safety. (Only the Senate votes on presidential nominees.)
Senate aides have spent recent days trying out virtual hearings on WebEX, a videoconferencing service. (There are security concerns about Zoom.) Casey expected to participate in a health committee hearing using the platform later this week, and Toomey announced he would use it to chair a Senate round table Wednesday on restarting the economy.
Other hearings that require in-person attendance have left aides scrambling to book rooms large enough to accommodate social distancing, Senate aides said.
Voting, normally a time when all 100 senators gather, exchanging laughs and hugs and handshakes, had already changed when lawmakers passed the coronavirus rescue package in their last major in-person action. They were told not to congregate.
As the vote unfolded Monday, lawmakers trickled in wearing a colorful array of masks or face coverings. Some wore gloves. Most signaled their votes from a distance, flashing a thumb up or down and quickly leaving.
“That’s a uniquely challenging thing for the Senate,” said one Senate aide who wasn’t authorized to discuss the changes. “Senators don’t see each other very much, so that time on the floor is a good time to approach a colleague or pitch a bill, or talk about some dispute that they’re having.”
Along with senators and aides came nonpartisan parliamentary staff, cafeteria workers at the few open Senate dining options, janitors, and many others who make the Capitol work every day. It meant far more encounters for Capitol police who screen visitors.
Democrats argued that if all those people were going to be required to report to work, it should be for legislation that would address the coronavirus and its devastating economic effects, not Trump nominees.
“If the Senate is going to put congressional staff and support workers at heightened risk ... we must ensure that we use this time wisely,” Booker said in a statement.
Democrats had canceled their weekly policy lunches. Republicans planned to go ahead with theirs but in a larger room.
“There can be no doubt that this will be one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).
Each senator applied his or her own staff guidelines.
Booker closed his two New Jersey offices and didn’t expect to have any staff with him in Washington.