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A Debate On When The Lawmakers Will Return To D.C. Faces Partisan Divide


The country's partisan divide is on full display in the debate over when and how to return to normal activity. This month, the Republican-led Senate returned to Capitol Hill after several weeks away, and the Democratic-controlled House appears close to bringing its members back to town. One of the issues dividing the parties is whether more access to coronavirus testing is needed to reopen the country. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro is not on board with how his Republican governor has let the Lone Star State reopen. Castro says it's all happening too soon.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: There is more testing in Texas now than there was at the beginning but not nearly enough or to scale that you would need to be able to say, OK, we're testing enough people, and our curve is where we would need it to be.

GRISALES: So Castro is pivoting. He's warning of the risks. And his office has ramped up services to connect constituents with unemployment payments and food assistance. But many Republicans say it's Democratic-led states doing it all wrong. Here's President Trump talking to reporters in the Rose Garden.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The people want to go back. The numbers are getting to a point where they can. There just seems to be no effort on certain blue states to get back into gear.

GRISALES: Dr. Caitlin Rivers is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She says congressional members are facing the same difficult choices that face state and local leaders across the country.

CAITLIN RIVERS: You know, I think what we're seeing now is lawmakers and governors and all sorts of stakeholders having to balance economic pressures with public health pressures.

GRISALES: Dr. David Relman, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University, says it may boil down to a debate of urban versus rural. Most Democrats represent denser districts where coronavirus case numbers are higher, while Republicans may feel more pressure to reopen.

DAVID RELMAN: The Republicans are focusing upon the economic impact of the pandemic and on the United States and I think are perhaps coming from parts of the country where population density is less.

GRISALES: Republicans are critical that the House hasn't been in session for several weeks. Democrats could allow remote voting and hearings in the future, and they're consulting the Capitol attending physician on the best way to bring back their members safely. So far, eight members of Congress and more than 50 Capitol Hill workers have tested positive or were presumed sick from the illness. It highlights a debate over whether Congress should get first dibs on tests.

Recently, congressional leaders turned down such an offer from the Trump administration, which drew mixed reviews from both sides of the aisle. But some said it was still the right answer. Here's Democratic Representative Mikie Sherrill.

MIKIE SHERRILL: If we have access to any extra testing capacity, I think most of us would like to see that promulgated in our districts.

GRISALES: Sherrill knows the risks firsthand. She had to quarantine after her husband tested positive for COVID-19. Now the New Jersey lawmaker is part of a rare bipartisan group that is trying to negotiate the reopening debate. She's leading a task force with a Republican colleague in her neighboring state, Pete King of New York, to address lifting coronavirus restrictions in the Northeast. The nine-member team meets remotely with experts and is developing legislation to address what they see as a key issue - more federal leadership on testing. Here's King.

PETE KING: We realize now we have to - has to be national testing standards. There has to be a federal coordination of this.

GRISALES: The House is expected to return Friday as they continue to balance reopening the chamber with approving more assistance to those impacted by the virus.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
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