6 law­mak­ers in­fected in less than a week

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS | CORONAVIRU­S PANDEMIC - Christal Hayes

WASHINGTON – As ram­pant na­tion­wide coro­n­avirus spikes force states to re­ex­am­ine re­open­ing efforts, 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, on Tues­day night be­came the lat­est se­na­tor to an­nounce a pos­i­tive test.

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’ efforts 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 that 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 cast votes, spoke on the Se­nate floor, 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 past six days are Reps. Ed Perl­mut­ter, D- Colo.; Don Young, R- Alaska; Cheri Bus­tos, D- Ill.; Tim Wal­berg, RMich.; and in­com­ing Rep. Ash­ley Hin­son, R- Iowa.

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 Sen. 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.

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 car­ry­out in re­sponse.

Law­mak­ers also have con­tin­ued to snipe over mask us­age and are rou­tinely seen ig­nor­ing social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines.

Se­na­tors have been seen reg­u­larly on the cham­ber floor ex­chang­ing words in close con­tact. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, DCalif., was seen on Capi­tol Hill Tues­day with­out a mask, talk­ing with staff in a hall­way for sev­eral min­utes.

Masks have be­come di­vi­sive on Capi­tol Hill, just as in many places in the coun­try, with some Repub­li­cans ques­tion­ing their efficiency and rail­ing against man­dates, while Democrats stress the need for Amer­i­cans across the coun­try to wear them.

While most law­mak­ers wear masks reg­u­larly, ten­sions boiled over on the Se­nate floor Mon­day af­ter Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D- Ohio, asked Sen. Dan Sul­li­van, R- Alaska, who was pre­sid­ing over the Se­nate at the time, whether he would wear a mask.

“I’d start by ask­ing the pre­sid­ing officer 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 floor 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 this year that al­lowed for mem­bers to vote through proxy while length­en­ing vot­ing pe­ri­ods on the House floor 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.

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 offer 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.

Their re­sis­tance to wide­spread test­ing, which is man­dated at the White House for all staff and vis­i­tors, has con­tin­ued for 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 office sent a no­tice to all staff and mem­bers of Congress offer­ing wide­spread test­ing as Congress came back into town. The test­ing isn’t manda­tory, 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.

“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.” Rep. Don Young, R- Alaska

KEVIN DIETSCH/ AP

Sen. Charles Grass­ley, R- Iowa, said Tues­day he tested pos­i­tive for the coro­n­avirus. He is third in line for the pres­i­dency.

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