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Citing continued risk, leaders reverse course: House won't return next week after all

"We had no choice," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Amid warnings of continued risks from the pandemic and after several members complained, House leaders reversed course on Tuesday and announced the House will not return to Washington next week as expected.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer explained the move Tuesday morning, the opposite of what he told members on a Democratic Caucus conference call just the previous day.

Hoyer said after consulting with the House attending physician Brian Monahan, who "forcefully" noted that coronavirus cases in Washington are still on the rise, Democratic leadership determined that it is not a good time for more than 400 members to safely return to the nation's capital.

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"We made a judgment that we will not come back next week, but that we hope to come back very soon to pass the CARES 2 piece of legislation, and at that time we will be asking members to return to the Congress, to Washington," Hoyer told reporters.

“The House doctor, when I talked to him yesterday, was concerned because the numbers in the District of Columbia are going up,” the Maryland Democrat said. “They’re not flat and they’re not going down.”

“The House physician’s view was the risk to members was not one he would recommend taking,” Hoyer said. He added that the House physician "spoke passionately" about the situation in Washington and what members could potentially be walking into if they returned next week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the decision Tuesday.

"We had no choice. The Capitol physician recommends that we not come back and we have to take that guidance in consideration for the safety of those who have to be here: press, staff, members of Congress, members' staff in addition to our own staff," Pelosi said on a conference call.

Several members have already tested positive for the novel coronavirus since March. A dozen Capitol Police officers tested positive in recent weeks. And it’s been reported that 11 construction workers who were renovating the Cannon House Office Building also tested positive in recent days. ABC News has reached out to the Architect of the Capitol for a statement.

According to Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki, eight of those 12 officers who tested positive have "fully recovered and have returned to work, or are cleared to return to work."

Hoyer also noted that talks on the fifth coronavirus relief bill are still ongoing, and because that package isn't ready for a vote yet, they determined it was best to keep the House out for a longer period of time.

The change of course comes after several House lawmakers grew increasingly concerned on a Democratic Caucus call on Monday about the decision to return next week.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said it was "dangerous" for lawmakers to return, sources familiar with the call told ABC News.

Many lawmakers also had concerns about how they were expected to take care of their families and children while returning to Washington for an extended stay.

Another Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, asked leadership if all members and their staffs would get tested for the coronavirus if they were to return to Washington. The answer from leadership was "no," because tests are scarce, a source familiar with the call told ABC News.

This stance made members more uneasy about returning, the source said.

ABC News has reached out to Lawrence's office for comment.

“Based upon members, the doctor’s thoughts, I talked to the Speaker, and we both concluded that based upon – we ought to listen to the medical authorities because we’ve urged that to be the case for everybody, and so that’s what we’re doing,” Hoyer said.

Republican leadership was quick to blast Democrats' for the reversal on the decision for the House to return.

“It’s clear that Democrats have no idea how to run the House during this critical time and no plan to safely reopen Congress. As Leader McCarthy said last week, we should sit down and chart a bipartisan path forward so members are not constantly twisting in the wind," a spokeswoman for Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement to ABC News.

Hoyer was asked about the optics of the House remaining away from the Capitol building, even as the Senate is still set to return on May 4.

"The Senate's coming back so they can confirm judges and other executive appointments," Hoyer said. "Now whether they're going to do any substantive legislation is another question. They haven't been doing that, as you know, for the last year and a half."

Moments after Hoyer made the comments, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted a statement the Republican Leader made on Monday, reiterating that the Senate is still expected to convene next week.

President Donald Trump weighed in from the Oval Office on Tuesday.

"The Democrats, they don't want to come back. They don’t want to come back. I think they should be back here, but they don't. They are enjoying their vacation. They shouldn't be," Trump told reporters.

"If you look at Nancy Pelosi eating ice cream on late-night television. Yeah, I think they probably are. They're having a good time. I think they should be back. I think they should all come back and we should work on this together," Trump said.

Hoyer said discussions about changing House rules to allow for remote work will continue. A bipartisan task force he is part of is talking again on Tuesday.

“We are going to be working in the interim in trying to facilitate committees meeting in a real way, but virtually,” he said.

Hoyer also made the claim that he believes House members are actually working harder away from the Capitol than if they were in session.

“I think most members are working harder than they would work if they were at the Capitol and I mean by that, I know they're talking to their small businesses their medium-sized businesses, their hospitals, their community health centers,” Hoyer said.

“My point is, any thought that the members aren't working very hard trying to help their people with coronavirus challenge is simply incorrect,” Hoyer said. “They are working very hard. The question is, can we get them back safely when needed?”

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map
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