The 87-year-old senator from Iowa is the president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line for the presidency.
WASHINGTON – As rampant nationwide coronavirus spikes force states to reexamine reopening efforts, Congress is still struggling to maneuver around the pandemic as it encroaches on legislative business and endangers its members.
COVID-19 has loomed over Congress for much of the year yet lawmakers are still bickering over wearing face masks and not social distancing. And Congressional leaders have refused to make coronavirus testing mandatory for lawmakers traveling back and forth to their home states.
A rash of recent cases has infected a handful of lawmakers and sent several others into quarantine all while the U.S. Capitol welcomed back more than 500 legislators in the House and Senate this week. Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the oldest members of the Senate, became the latest senator to announce a positive test Tuesday night.
The batch of new infections on Capitol Hill and continued resistance to everyday changes to acknowledge the virus’ deadly impacts have thrust the spotlight on Congress’ efforts to curtail the pandemic both across the nation and inside its own walls .
New cases, same behavior
In less than a week, six lawmakers announced they had tested positive for COVID-19. Grassley, the 87-year-old Iowa Republican who is third in line to the presidency as president pro tempore of the Senate, spent much of Monday on Capitol Hill. He casted votes, spoke on the Senate floor, and attended a meeting with Senate Republican leadership, which includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley announced his diagnosis the following day.
Several other lawmakers announced they were quarantining after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive. It’s unclear whether any senators would quarantine after Grassley’s diagnosis.
Along with Grassley, lawmakers who have announced they tested positive over the last six days include: Reps. Ed Perlmutter, R-Colo.; Don Young, R-Alaska; Cherri Bustos, D-Ill.; Tim Walberg, R-Mich.; and incoming Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa.
It’s nearly impossible to fathom the number of cases and deaths from the COVID-19 virus, so we added some geographical perspective.
The running list: Which members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19?
‘I don’t need your instruction’: Sens. Sherrod Brown and Dan Sullivan argue over wearing masks
More: House Democrat’s change new-member dinner to grab-and-go after facing criticism
Young, at 87 years old, is the oldest member of Congress and is frequently seen without a mask. He was particularly hard hit by the virus and was hospitalized for three days.
“I’ve been shot, I’ve been rolled over, I’ve been hit in the head a hundred times, but I’ve never felt as bad as I did” with the virus, Young told The Washington Post. “This is not good.”
Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., were forced to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
The absence of Grassley and Scott in the Senate did not go unnoticed Tuesday, as Republicans did not have the votes necessary to move forward a controversial nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Despite the infections and exposures, lawmakers have struggled to make changes inside the Capitol.
House Dem and GOP leaders are holding respective dinners for new members.
.@SpeakerPelosi told me it’s safe. “It’s very spaced,” she said and there is enhanced ventilation and the Capitol physician signed off. pic.twitter.com/ZXjf72lnrP
— Leigh Ann Caldwell (@LACaldwellDC) November 13, 2020
Democratic and Republican leadership in the House were broadly excoriated on social media this weekend for planning indoor dinners for newly elected members of Congress, with many noting the dinners set a poor example for the rest of the country.
Both dinners, one Friday for Democrats and the other Sunday for Republicans, were changed to carry-out in response.
Lawmakers have also continued to snipe over mask usage and are routinely seen ignoring social distancing guidelines.
Senators have been seen regularly on the chamber floor exchanging words in close contact. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was seen on Capitol Hill Tuesday without a mask, talking with staff in a hallway for several minutes.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), without a mask, walks through the corridor before today’s Facebook/Twitter CEO hearing. pic.twitter.com/lYTVMEa3Dw
— The Recount (@therecount) November 17, 2020
Masks have become a divisive object on Capitol Hill, like many places in the country, with some Republicans questioning their efficiency and railing against mandates while Democrats stress on the need for Americans across the country to wear them.
While most lawmakers wear masks regularly, tensions boiled over on the Senate floor on Monday after Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asked fellow Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who was presiding over the Senate at the time, if he would wear a mask.
“I’d start by asking the presiding officer to please wear a mask as he speaks,” Brown said, donning his own mask as he made the request.
As Brown began explaining that he knows he can’t tell Sullivan what to do, the Republican cut him off, telling him that “I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking like most senators … I don’t need your instruction.”
New testing on Capitol Hill
Congress overall does not have any blanket rules for masks or its operations during COVID-19 as each chamber largely manages itself.
The House has mandated masks be worn on the floor and in committee hearings, even threatening that members might not be recognized to speak if they are not wearing a face covering. The chamber, which boasts more than 400 members, passed unprecedented rule changes earlier this year that allowed for members to vote through proxy while lengthening voting periods on the House floor to ensure lawmakers can socially distance.
The Senate has not enacted similar policies. McConnell, R-Ky., has argued members of the chamber have followed public health guidelines and mandates were not needed.
President Trump said his administration would not go to a national COVID-19 lockdown while speaking from the Rose Garden.
Leaders in both chambers did agree on one thing: widespread testing on Capitol Hill wasn’t feasible.
McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected an offer from the administration in May for rapid tests. They cited concerns about the logistics of testing the thousands of people who work at the Capitol daily and concerns that lawmakers would be given preferential treatment at a moment when many Americans could not get testing.
More: Reports: Capitol physician says he lacks enough tests for all returning senators
More: Speaker Pelosi mandates wearing masks on House floor after Rep. Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19
Congressional efforts to curtail COVID nationally: Coronavirus stimulus negotiations in a ‘lame duck’ session likely to face more deadlock
Their resistance to widespread testing, which is mandated at the White House for all staff and visitors, has continued over months with leaders explaining they were following the guidance of the Capitol’s attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan
This week there was a shift.
Monahan’s office sent a notice to all staff and members of Congress offering widespread testing as Congress came back into town.
The testing isn’t mandatory, even for members and staff who travel from areas seeing spikes in infections, and came as a result of an order from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Bowser’s order requires those traveling from nearly every state to be tested before coming to Washington and again be tested several days after arriving.
Lawmakers and staff traveling to Washington are considered essential workers not mandated to follow the order, but the availability of testing on Capitol Hill encourages adherence.
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