Congress confronts dual crises of protests, virus outbreak

  • FILE - In this May 3, 2020, file photo, light shines from inside the U.S. Capitol dome at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON — Congress convened Monday confronting protests outside its door, and across the nation, over the treatment of black people in the United States. The civil unrest combined with the COVID-19 crisis 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.”

As protesters gathered outside the Capitol, still partly locked down due to the coronavirus, the dual crises tested Washington. Some lawmakers urged comity and federal aid to prevent the country from slipping into further conflict. Others sided with President Donald Trump’s threat to use military force if necessary to end the protests.

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.

“The murder of George Floyd and the current COVID-19 crisis illustrate once again the painful and dangerous legacy that white supremacy has had in our country,” Lee said in introducing the measure. “This inequality is at the heart of every crisis we’re dealing with right now.”

Even some conservatives who in the past have countered “Black Lives Matter” protests with “Blue Lives Matter” support for law enforcement acknowledged the concerns. After countless incidents of police being called to investigate black people doing ordinary things — most recently when a white woman in New York summoned 911 over an African American bird watcher in Central Park — many lawmakers agreed public attitudes and police tactics need review.

Yet, some Trump allies pushed for a show of military action to quell the protests now stretching into their sixth day.

“Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight,” tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. He suggested bringing in the 101st Airborne — an elite Army unit — to confront outside agitators influencing the protests. “We need to have zero tolerance,” he said.

McConnell also suggested the civil unrest “has to end.”

“If state and local leaders cannot or will not secure the peace and protect citizens and their property, I hope the federal government is ready to stand in the breech,” McConnell said.

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.

State and local leaders pleaded for more federal aid as they stare down red ink due to the rising costs of addressing the COVID-19 crisis and plummeting revenues as Americans stay home.

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 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.

Deadlines were fast approaching. Most states have budget deadlines with the new fiscal year starting July 1. The $600 boost to unemployment benefits approved in the CARES Act aid package was set to expire July 31. Small businesses that tapped the Paycheck Protection Program will start seeing loans come due without adjustments by Congress.

The Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the chamber with a prayer over lawmakers.

“May they strive to find a vaccine to inoculate our nation against hate, sin and despair,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Chris Rugaber contributed to this report.

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