WASHINGTON – Congress convened Monday with protests outside its door and across the nation, the Capitol already struck by the COVID-19 outbreak now confronting a deepening crisis over the treatment of black people in the United States.
The civil unrest over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police combined with the coronavirus pandemic that's disproportionately striking African Americans sparked an urgent plea for understanding from some leaders as the world watches a nation in turmoil.
Notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell read into the Senate record the names of black people who have died at the hands of the police. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor.
“To me,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in a speech in the Senate chamber, and to “millions of outraged Americans, these disturbing events do not look like three isolated incidents. They look more like the latest chapter in our national struggle to make equal just and equal protection under the law a fact of life for all Americans.”
House and Senate lawmakers swiftly began drafting legislation to address police violence and confront the inequities facing black Americans. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., proposed a sweeping overhaul of law enforcement procedures. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., pushed to establish the first U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, backed by a civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. House Democrats, working from home from because of health risks convening during the pandemic, met over a lengthy conference call on next steps.
The protests hit a nation already in crisis over the virus outbreak and economic shutdown that has left 41 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits as Congress struggles to respond.
The House approved a new $3 trillion rescue package from Democrats, but the Senate had no immediate plans to consider a fresh round of relief. Instead, Senate Republicans focused on kick-starting the economy and eliminating a $600 unemployment benefit to push Americans back to work when jobs return. They also want to develop a liability shield to protect businesses that do reopen from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
A bipartisan group of economists called on Congress on Monday to provide $1 trillion in additional aid to states and cities, on par with the House-passed bill.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said roughly 3 million state and local government employees could lose their jobs in the next year – in addition to the nearly 1 million that have already been laid off.
“This is about as close to a no-brainer that you could do as possible,” Glenn Hubbard, an economist at Columbia University and a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush, said on the conference call organized by the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
The Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the chamber with a prayer.
“May they strive to find a vaccine to inoculate our nation against hate, sin and despair,” he said.