A few days after she ended her presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann, were supposed to go hiking near Gila, N.M., a well-earned vacation after the crush of the previous 14 months on the trail.
But Warren left the presidential pack just as national concern about the coronavirus intensified from a vague threat brewing elsewhere to a tangible danger at home. Less than a week after her March 5 announcement ending her campaign, and just a few days after she made a surprise appearance on what would be the last “Saturday Night Live” filmed in the studio, President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.
Warren and Mann canceled their trip. Instead, they have been driving back and forth from Cambridge to Washington, as she has gotten back to work, churning out a steady stream of legislation, op-eds, and tough letters to agencies involved in the federal government’s coronavirus response.
"She took a breath, and then she dove right into the work of how to pull working people up in the aftermath of this pandemic,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a close Warren ally.
The result: Despite her failed presidential bid, Warren remains highly visible on the biggest issue of the moment — just as Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is mulling who to pick as his running mate.
“During this pandemic, I see my job as doing everything that I possibly can to help our country and our Commonwealth get out of this crisis,” Warren said in an interview with the Globe.
Most elected officials in Washington, of course, are focused on the pandemic and its fallout. But Warren’s supporters say she’s approaching the crisis with her typical shrewdness to make sure her proposals advance. A key part of that strategy has been reaching out to find legislative partners in the House — where Democrats hold the majority, and thus have more latitude to get what they want in a final legislative package than Senate Democrats.
Her collaborations meant that several of her major proposals made it into the sprawling $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill the House passed last week. These include key pieces of a nationwide contact tracing program she drafted with Representative Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and her proposal to cancel at least $10,000 in federal student loans for each borrower, an idea endorsed by Biden.
Warren’s supporters say her pandemic response shows why she’s the best pick for Biden’s No. 2. Meanwhile, her New Deal-style economic ideas, pandemic response plans, and demonstrated knowledge of how to work the various levers of power in Washington are among the reasons Biden is seriously considering her, according to various reports.
“I believe in this crisis, at this moment, Senator Warren is the most qualified to be vice president," said Representative Ro Khanna of California, a national cochair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Khanna and Warren coauthored an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights,” which would establish basic workplace health and safety standards, hazard pay, and other protections for front-line workers during the pandemic. Much of that proposal is in the $3 trillion House bill.
“It just has to do with the expertise she wields in understanding the Hill and federal bureaucracy ... and the type of structural economic changes we’re going to need," he told the Globe.
Warren also has been personally touched by the pandemic, losing her oldest brother to COVID-19 last month.
“I had been talking to him twice a day, every day, and then I called and there was no answer on his cellphone. And I found out a few hours later that he’d been taken to the hospital. And to know that he spent the next several days by himself, and that he passed without my brothers or me to be there to hold his hand, tell one last story, that’s really hard,” Warren said, emotion softening her voice.
It’s also hard, Warren said, that she can’t mourn in person with her two remaining brothers. The siblings spent long stretches together when both their parents died, she recalled. “I didn’t have to leave them until it felt right, that we’d had a chance to sort through our memories and Christmas decorations and plans for what happens next. But none of that is possible here,” she said.
Republicans are not impressed with Warren’s work. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed the entire House bill as a “totally unserious effort," and has indicated the Senate is in no rush to take up another relief bill when Congress has already added close to $3 trillion to the national debt.
Only one Republican voted for the House bill; the rest mocked it as a “socialist wish list” that provides Republicans with powerful political ammunition to use against vulnerable House Democrats.
Among the provisions drawing GOP ire is $3.6 billion in funding to help states expand vote-by-mail and take other steps to ensure the 2020 elections can happen safely, drawing on plans Warren put forth last month. The Republican National Committee slammed Warren for trying to force states to adopt voting by mail because it “creates a massive opportunity for voter fraud.”
More than a dozen moderate Democrats opposed the House bill, too, signaling that Warren’s priorities may face a tough sell even among some Democrats in the Senate. As in the House, though, she has partnered with numerous Senate allies on various proposals. She crafted the student debt cancellation plan, for instance, with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, another member of Senate leadership, as well as Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Some of Warren’s other coronavirus work is less visible. Starting in mid-March with a discussion with mayors across the state, Warren has engaged in an ongoing series of calls with various Massachusetts officials, advocacy groups, and other constituencies. She’s held more than a dozen so far.
Warren said a lot of her pandemic policy ideas have come directly from those conversations. “The calls are a chance for people to hear from me, but it’s also a chance for me to hear from them, and to get better, on-the-ground information,” she said.
She said early on, in a call with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and small business owners, some told her about the problems they were having with the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers loans to companies with fewer than 500 workers. Some of the changes sparked by that call made it into the next funding bill that passed Congress, Warren said.
On another call, food services workers told her about being expected to show up for work but facing risky conditions, with only makeshift protective gear and no hand sanitizer. That informed her thinking as she worked on the “Essential Workers Bill of Rights,” she said.
On a call last week with close to 200 Massachusetts housing advocates, to which Warren’s office invited the Globe to listen, Warren highlighted numerous policy measures she’s pushing, including a bill she introduced with Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston to provide $11.5 billion in grants to groups providing emergency shelter solutions during the pandemic. That proposal was included in the House relief bill.
“I know it has got to be incredibly difficult to get up every day to face people who are in genuine need, and not have the resources to be able to help them,” Warren told them.
Part of the problem, she said, is “incompetence” on the part of the Trump administration, and a lack of urgency from congressional Republicans. Warren advised the advocates to redouble their pressure on state and federal lawmakers.
“We have to put the wind in our own sails on this," she said.