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As a new wave of COVID-19 sweeps across Washington, a number of lawmakers are publicly calling out the confusion and misguidance over safety and testing policies at the Capitol.
Three Republican Senators have tested positive for coronavirus in the wake of a mass-infection event held at the White House in late September. At least ten high level staffers including President Donald Trump are ill with the deadly virus. The numbers could increase quickly as more Republican Senators have said that they may have been exposed but had not yet tested positive.
Still, some Senators may opt out of testing altogether as there is no concrete COVID testing protocol for members of Congress, who have an average age that places them at high-risk for deadly complications related to the virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself refused to tell reporters whether he had been tested or would be this weekend.
McConnell said this week that he would continue his agenda of pushing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett through her Congressional confirmation hearing. The proclamation alarmed a number of his Democratic colleagues who said the response was irresponsible.
“If it’s too dangerous to have the Senate in session it is also too dangerous for committee hearings to continue,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a statement Saturday.
The rules in the Senate regarding safety are largely decided by political parties and display a vast disparity between Republican and Democratic approaches to the virus. Democrats no longer hold in-person caucus meetings and instead conduct business over conference calls. Republicans, meanwhile, hold in-person lunches three times a week and though most wear masks in public, there have been instances where they’ve spoken to members of the press and at campaign events without them.
There have been some changes made. In May, the House approved rule changes that allowed them to conduct business through proxy voting and conduct remote hearings through the pandemic. The Capitol is closed to the public and social distancing is encouraged. Still, it wasn’t until July that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi required members of Congress to wear masks and there are no rules about members of Congress attending outside engagements with or without masks on. There is no official testing policy in either the House or Senate, and leadership on both sides of the aisle seem eager to press on with business as usual.
“The Senate’s floor schedule will not interrupt the thorough, fair, and historically supported confirmation process previously laid out by Chairman [Lindsey] Graham,” McConnell said in a statement. “Certainly all Republican members of the committee will participate in these important hearings.”
Pelosi also continued to work full days last week, though she did say she was getting tested out of “an abundance of caution.”
But behind the scenes, both leaders are under pressure by coworkers and staffers to formalize safety protocol. At least 20 members of Congress have been infected or are presumed to have been infected with the virus thus far along with over one hundred of their staffers.
“This episode demonstrates that the Senate needs a testing and contact tracing program for senators, staff, and all who work in the Capitol complex,” said Schumer in his statement.
Representative Rodney Davis, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, also called for an increase in formalized testing, especially for staffers on the Hill. “That’s going to help the people who protect this House every day. Let’s begin to protect them, too. And that includes the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol employees, the folks who are here on the grounds, like members of the media,” he said.
The Capitol’s Office of the Attending Physician revised their guidelines to say that any lawmaker, staffer or media member who exhibits systems or has been in contact with someone who has tested positive can receive a test, but there is no requirement.
So far, Pelosi’s office has denied to comment on changing the testing protocol but McConnell’s team told The Washington Post that he believed they were already doing enough.
“We’ve got our masks on, we practice social distancing. We’ve got a few members quarantined at various times but we’ve been able to function,” McConnell told the Post. “So far the disease has not kept us from operating as we would normally and there’s no reason to expect that to be the case in the foreseeable future.”
Members of Congress, however, say, loose protocols have stopped them from properly doing their jobs.
“I’ve stopped going to in-person Judiciary Committee meetings because of the number of members on that side who’ve either tested positive or just refuse to wear masks there, and it’s selfish. It’s reckless, and it furthers this virus,” Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell told the press.
Senators Thom Tillis and Mike Lee who both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a Rose Garden ceremony celebrating Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court pick, late last month. Another Senator, Ron Johnson also tested positive on Saturday though he did not attend the ceremony.
Senator Ted Cruz also attended the ceremony and said he would self-quarantine but had plans to return for the hearings. “He feels healthy, hasn’t exhibited any Covid-19 symptoms, and has tested negative,” a Cruz spokesperson said. “In accordance with medical advice, he will return to the Senate for the Supreme Court nomination hearings.”
Senator Josh Hawley, also on the committee and also present at the ceremony said he would be tested as well.
Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and Marsha Blackburn, meanwhile, held an indoor event on Friday with many going maskless after they had met with the president earlier in the week.
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