Sen. Mike Lee wants Congress to return to work — at the Capitol

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee on Tuesday argued that the Senate floor could be the “safest place in America,” but only because its usual inhabitants have abandoned their day jobs to stay at home during the pandemic that is upending American lives and livelihoods.

“We can have meetings; we can make phone calls; we can help solve problems like every other American could but we cannot do the job for which we were elected without actually being here,” the Utah Republican said from the nearly empty floor, adding that “Congress has chosen to prioritize its own convenience.”

“Under our constitutional system, under any definition of the term, senators are essential employees,” Lee said. “We're being paid. We have a crisis to continue to work through. Our services are necessary. And in order to perform those services, we have to perform them here in Washington.”

Congress hasn’t been in full session since March when it quickly passed the most massive relief package in American history — a $2.2 trillion that actually could end up being one of many costly measures to help the U.S. economy, health care system and displaced workers. Since then, the Capitol complex has been mostly closed with the House and Senate holding pro forma sessions, sometimes for less than a minute.

That could change this week as Congress is looking to pass another relief bill, though that could come in the form of vote by acclamation, meaning only a few senators would be there in person.

Lee said that is “not acceptable.”

“We should not be passing major legislation, especially legislation providing nearly a half trillion dollars in new spending without Congress actually being in session, without members actually being here to debate, discuss, amend and consider legislation and vote on it individually rather than on an absentee basis,” Lee said. “This crisis is too big to leave up to a small handful of people.”

Lee spent 14 days in quarantine after exposure to Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who tested positive for COVID-19, but the two were next to each other Tuesday as Lee offered his rebuke of Congress for recessing instead of returning to Washington.

“Congress stepped up before we recessed to appropriate money for workers and businesses who were facing an unprecedented monumental crisis, but that was weeks ago,” Lee said. “That was literally 20 million lost jobs ago.”