WASHINGTON ― Though Congress is taking steps to protect lawmakers from the new coronavirus and promote social distancing, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee plans to hold its markup of the annual defense bill ― usually a hearing with more than 100 people in attendance ― on schedule next month.
But it is also exploring alternatives as it considers the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, said Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for HASC’s Democratic majority.
“Barring a material change, the Committee plans to proceed with the previously identified mark up date and deliver the NDAA for a vote on the House floor by mid-May. While we are exploring other options to coordinate member involvement in the mark up process, no decisions have been made at this time,” Matoush said in a statement.
The HASC markup session, meant for considering controversial amendments to the draft NDAA, is a significant event in the U.S. defense community, and it’s usually better attended than any HASC hearing. The committee’s tight hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building almost always sees full attendance by the panel’s 50-plus members and, despite the markup streaming online, an audience packed with dozens of lobbyists, staffers and reporters.
That would seem to be at odds with widespread efforts to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 outbreak by practicing social distancing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on members of Congress to do on Sunday. On Monday, President Donald Trump recommended avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people for 15 days.
Governments around the world have closed borders, and millions of workers and students have been ordered to stay home. On Monday, U.S. officials recommended that older people and those with underlying health conditions “stay home and away from other people.” And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend people try to stay at least 6 feet away from each other.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was still targeting the end of May for his panel’s markup of the NDAA, which ― unlike the House markup ― is mostly closed to the public. A SASC spokeswoman said Tuesday that the panel “is continuing to take every step needed to meet this deadline, while also taking necessary precautions” advised by the CDC and the Senate’s attending physician.
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees expect their hearing schedules in the run-up to the NDAA to be affected. However, SASC was still advertising four hearings for next week, including one on the posture of the Army, hosting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff James McConville.
“As the situation is evolving rapidly, we do expect our hearing schedule to be affected by recent CDC and Administration guidance, and we will release more information on this as it becomes available,” the SASC spokeswoman said.
HASC had no hearings on its public docket Tuesday, and House leaders had yet to announce whether the chamber will reconvene next week. Matoush said staffers are “using available technological tools” to continue work on the NDAA.
“We are monitoring the situation carefully and will continue to assess our posture during the district work period to make sound decisions about our way forward,” Matoush said, adding that the panel was adhering to the CDC, sergeant-at-arms and House physician guidance “out of an abundance of caution and to protect the health of the committee’s members and staff.”
The pandemic has reopened conversations about whether lawmakers always need to be physically present in the Capitol to vote. As lawmakers urged the public to practice social distancing, a key lawmaker on defense was among those arguing for a rule change to permit remote voting during national emergencies.
“Tomorrow it could be a terrorism threat. We’ve got to think about technology, the 21st century, and the voting requirements in the Senate and the House,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
After Pelosi muscled through an economic stimulus package last week, the White House was pitching the plan to Senate Republicans on Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised fast action. Inhofe, in a hallway interview, told reporters the crisis had inspired new bipartisanship.
“We’re having a president who is showing maturity at a time when even the hate-Trump people are coming around and saying we’re doing the right thing right now,” said Inhofe, a Trump ally. “We are getting more cooperation from Democrats and Republicans. People realize this is a crisis, it’s for real.”
Inhofe, who is 85, acknowledged he was at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of his age. Still, he said he is less inclined to practice social distancing and more inclined to exercise.
“I’m taking better care of myself than I normally would,” Inhofe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.